Cases having to do with military combat service were not the only ones that raised issues of conflict between persons of faith and the state during wartime. Others mixed free exercise concerns with subtle ways common practice seemed to promote religion and thus hint at a religious establishment. During the ear of World War II, the group known as Jehovah’s Witnesses became a symbol for this web of considerations. From their beginnings in the later nineteenth century, the Jehovah’s Witnesses had regarded all human government as a tool of Satan at worst, a necessary evil at best. Regardless, no Witness would as a matter of faith pledge loyalty to any government in a way that would seem to defy one’s absolute loyalty to God. When what became the Pledge of Allegiance to the American flag first appeared in a youth magazine in 1892, it lacked both the phrase “under God” and the imprimatur of the government. As World War II loomed, however, Congress enacted legislation mandating the population to salute the flag, and school districts across the nation began requiring all children to begin the school day with patriotic exercises that included recitation of the pledge to the flag. Although many objected on religious grounds, the Jehovah’s Witnesses gained national attention in the mid-1930s when more than 100 children were expelled from schools in Pennsylvania for refusing on religious grounds to salute the flag. By 1938, lower courts generally affirmed the right of these children to refrain from saluting the flag on religious grounds, but in 1940 the US Supreme Court ruled against them, noting in the majority opinion that the flag was a symbol of national unity, a secular matter rather than a religious one, and those who failed to salute it represented a dangerous threat to the nation. Much controversy ensued since those who disagreed with the decision believed the Court transformed a matter of religious belief and practice into a political weapon and thus denied Witnesses and others the right to free exercise of their faith. Three years later, however, in a similar case, the Court affirmed the right of citizens to refrain from saluting the flag should religious convictions prohibit them from doing so. In retrospect, the earlier cases were as much about promoting a sense of national unity and common identity as the Nazi menace loomed on the horizon; by the later decision in 1943, the tide was turning in World War II, and it was clear that groups like the Witnesses and others who had religious reservations about taking political oaths of any kind were really no threat to national security at all. One could be a good American and not salute the flag if that action contradicted one’s ultimate allegiance to God alone.
* Amanda Porterfield & John Corrigan (eds.),
Religion in American history,
pp. 259, 260.