In the category of ‘oh, why open up this can of worms?‘ comes a story from yesterday’s Wisconsin State Journal about Dane County Supervisor Heidi Wegleitner’s attempt to end the practice of reciting the Pledge of Allegiance before board meetings. Her proposal would also eliminate any reference to an opening prayer. Let’s start with the Pledge.
For those of you who have been around town for awhile this may sound vaguely familiar. It should because in October, 2001, just a month after 9/11, Madison was in the thick of a national controversy over the Pledge. The Wisconsin Legislature had passed a bill requiring public schools to start the day with the Pledge or the National Anthem or both. The Madison School Board voted to play an instrumental version of the Anthem over school public address systems, which met the letter of the law, but was interpreted as “Madison bans the Pledge of Allegiance!”
Feathers flew. Rush Limbaugh and Little Limbaughs bloviated. At a special board meeting on October 15th of that year a crowd of 1,200 showed up. At the start of the meeting they rose and screamed the Pledge at the school board seated on the stage, followed by chants of “USA!.” Five of the seven members rose to say the Pledge with the angry crowd. But members Bill Keys and Shwaw Vang remained seated. Vang later gave a stirring speech in which he said that he would not be compelled to say the Pledge and then led the audience in it once again, but on his own terms.
Keys and Vang showed courage that day. They earned our respect. And the angry mob? They used the Pledge like a sledgehammer. It was one of the ugliest moments in Madison political history.
So, let’s not repeat it. Bill Keys and Shwaw Vang were forced into taking a stand (or a seat as the case may be) by circumstances, and to this day I respect them for it. But Wegleitner is stirring an unnecessary controversy where none need exist.
I write this as someone who actually isn’t all that enamored of the Pledge. I served on the county board for five years and, as mayor, I was in many settings in which the Pledge was recited. Truth is I never much liked it. I thought back to that ugly scene of faces, contorted by anger, shouting the Pledge at the school board. This was not what made me love America.
Also, I didn’t agree with every word of it. Like George Carlin’s rewriting of the Ten Commandments, I would rework it.
For one thing I don’t pledge my allegiance to a flag. That’s just a piece of fabric, though one that should be treated with respect. I do, however, gladly pledge allegiance to the republic for which it stands. Also, because I’m not religious, I’m no fan of the “under God” part, which wasn’t added until the 1950s anyway.
But now here comes the part that Wegleitner should like. “One nation, indivisible.” That’s important because it is a clear statement of the primacy of the Federal government over the states. And, of course, states’ rights was the basis for the Confederacy and its defense of slavery, and later a cudgel for anti-civil rights politicians in the South. Indivisible even became the name of a liberal group that sprung up to fight Donald Trump after his election in 2016.
And “liberty and justice for all”? Who’s against that?
So, if it were up to me the Pledge would read: “I pledge allegiance to the republic of the United States of America, one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” I like it. It’s more crisp and to the point. It also will not happen.
As for the prayer, the board rules allow for a “prayer/inspirational message” offered by a supervisor at the start of each meeting. That honor rotates among the 37 supervisors. When I was on the board 30 years ago maybe just under half of the supervisors offered a prayer and the rest of us sought to inspire. Today, Supervisor Tim Kiefer tells me that he’s the only one to offer a prayer. “I typically choose a brief, ecumenical prayer and in ten years on the county board I have never received a single complaint about any prayer I have given,” Keifer wrote me. “I hope that the county board will leave this tradition unchanged.”
Again, I’m not religious, but I was never bothered or offended when one of my colleagues offered up a prayer. I figured we needed all the help we could get. To be clear, Wegleitner would not ban praying, but why eliminate even the reference to it? What’s the point?
We have to ask ourselves, is this a fight worth having? Especially when the board has more important things to do, like make a final decision on the jail project. If a supervisor objects to the Pledge or the prayer, well, she can just stand quietly in the back and take her seat afterwords, which is what I often did when I served on the board. (Well, I did that because I was habitually late, but still, it works to the same effect.)
I’ll let Kiefer have the last sentence.
“The county board has some difficult challenges in the next term, above all the jail, where we don’t have any good or easy options available. We have more than enough work to do without also getting into a culture war fight over the Pledge of Allegiance and the word “prayer.””
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