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Doris writes a weekly column for LaGaceta, the nation's only trilingual newspaper, which has pages in English, Spanish, and Italian.  Begun in 1922 for Tampa's immigrant community, it continues to thrive more than a century later.  Her column is titled "In Context," as it aims to put contemporary issues in the context of the past.

Flag Day

Have you noticed that Mother Trib is bringing back some of the people whom they thoughtlessly dismissed only months ago? I haven’t asked what the deal is (probably a poor one, given that corporate profits are the main goal of publishers these days), but I’m glad to sometimes see again the faces of Tampa’s beloved Steve Otto and even conservative curmudgeon Joe Brown. With the relatively recent additions of Joe Henderson and Paul Guzzo, we have some fine writers again. On the other hand, when I look at those masculine names, I think about Suzie Siegel, Judy Hill, and other good women who had a different angle on the news, and that remains missing.

Back when I considered canceling my subscription, I said that the only good reason for keeping the Tribune was “Today in History.” That syndicated piece again served as inspiration on Sunday, when it reminded me that June 14 was Flag Day. No one celebrates it anymore – and that, I think, is a good thing. So, three thoughts, all based on “Today in History” for June 14.

First, Flag Day is that date because the Continental Congress – the colonial predecessor to today’s Congress – adopted a flag of thirteen stars on a field of blue, with thirteen red-and-white stripes denoting the thirteen rebellious British colonies on June 14, 1777. In all probability, it was not Betsy Ross’ flag. We won’t bother with the details on that, but if you care, you can read about it in several of my books. Do note, though, that almost a year passed between the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776, and the creation of an American flag. Earlier military units, if they used a flag at all, had various ones.

June 14 was proclaimed as Flag Day in 1916 by President Woodrow Wilson, during the year he ran for re-election. The commemoration flagged, so to speak, when the U.S. entered World War I the next year. I have studied this era closely because it coincides with women’s right to vote, and in all of the many contemporaneous documents I know, Flag Day gets no attention. It was even more likely to die after the war, when Wilson was viewed as a pacifist. Trying to prevent another such round of European carnage, he promoted the League of Nations, the forerunner of today’s United Nations. The Republican-dominated US Senate refused to ratify the treaty for the League, and when Wilson had a stroke and left office in 1920, observance of Flag Day also left.

Indeed, I thought Flag Day was new as a child, when my Lutheran clergyman put great emphasis on it during summer Vacation Bible School – also a new thing at the time. This was in the early fifties, at the height of the “Cold War.” Our very German Rev. Preus often preached against Russia’s godless communism, and we sang patriotic anthems as well as religious hymns. Even though he was also was intolerantly anti-Catholic, Rev. Preus and many others in our Minnesota town were strongly influenced by Republican Senator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin, an Irish Catholic and right-wing Republican, who -- like Tea Partiers today -- promoted a faux patriotism while attacking anyone with other views. But I think Rev. Preus decided he had overdone it when he pointed to the altar with its Christian flag and American flag and asked a teenage boy which was more important. The boy unhesitatingly chose the Stars and Stripes, and I could see the good parson’s face fall.

My parents quietly resisted this mixture of religion and nationalism. Although they were not educated, they read widely and paid close attention to the news. More than my friends’ parents, mine understood that Hitler had provided the most recent example of the dangers of confusing patriotism with religious faith. Both were Lutherans, but Dad was from the Norwegian tradition that is much more open-minded and peaceful. And while I’m in this mode, please allow me to mention two other June 14 milestones. On the date in 1907, Norwegian women won the vote; American women would wait until 1920. Second, on June 14, 1940, after Germany had conquered Poland, Nazis sent their first Jews to the concentration camp there near the town of Auschwitz.

* * *

Back to the flag: the Supreme Court doubtless had at least a vague sense of Flag Day when it issued a major decision on June 14, 1943. That was in the midst of World War II, but unlike the hysteria associated with the first world war, most Americans behaved like grown-ups this time. While many other nations, especially fascist ones, imposed harsh penalties on those who resisted state mandates, the Court ruled that schoolchildren could not be forced to salute the flag if their religious beliefs opposed that.

Since the days of colonial Quakers, some minority religions rejected saluting the flag because they thought it implied devotion to a nation over devotion to a religion. With the same reasoning, some refused to swear an oath on a Bible. They also, vainly, resisted the phrase “In God We Trust” on money. My parents agreed with this, not because they were non-believers, but because they were serious believers: they found such usages an insult to God. Using a slogan on national money not only mixed the state and the church, but also made it appear that God needed to advertise on pennies.

We had moved from Minnesota by 1956, and I don’t recall a family reaction to the third of the Flag Day related items: on June 14, 1956, Republican President Dwight D. Eisenhower issued an executive order adding the phrase “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance. That was near the end of McCarthy’s reign of intolerance, and the very popular Ike could have avoided this amendment to the pledge, but he was neither an intellectual nor a particularly astute politician. It’s especially interesting, though, that this happened by executive order, not by act of Congress. Doubtless most members of Congress were happy to hand this hot potato off to the president, but why the addition was needed at all remains a good question. The pledge contained no religious mention when Francis Bellamy wrote it in 1892, and the schoolchildren who recited it daily turned out to be the Greatest Generation. Not so much after 1956, I’d say, as the addition of “under God” did little to improve us.

Yet while I’m glad that Flag Day has diminished, I know that the reason is less likely to be thoughtful reconsideration than the business practices that truly govern our lives. June 14 is simply too close to July 4 to acknowledge both. The bicentennial doubtless reinforced the neglect of Flag Day, as the nation truly did a bang-up job of celebrating its 200th birthday on July 4, 1976. And even though both are on Sundays, with no time off work, Mother’s Day and Father’s Day also have to be squeezed into this time frame, as well as Memorial Day. Flag Day simply was too much.

* * *

Final item. I hadn’t intended to write on this, but because I’ve been talking about Lutheranism and about “Today in History,” one more thing. The previous day’s column, June 13, said that on this date in 1525, “German theologian Martin Luther married former nun Katharina von Bora.” I remember reading a book on her as a teenager, with the diminishing title of Kitty, My Rib. Young and unaware of male bodies, I wondered if the Genesis story about God making Eve from Adam’s rib might mean that men had fewer ribs than women.

But it wasn’t until this recent newspaper item that I noticed the “von” in her name. That is a title in Germanic languages, meaning that the family has noble heritage. Her family, as it turns out, was noble, but also impoverished by the time that she was born in 1499. Presumably wishing to rid himself of another mouth to feed, her father put her in a convent in 1504, when she was merely five years old. The accounts I’ve checked don’t say anything about her mother, but in those days, fathers had absolute control over children. This was true everywhere in the world, including America, until the mid-nineteenth century.

Ordained monk Martin Luther famously nailed his 95 Theses to the church wall in Wittenberg in 1517, beginning his protest against the established Catholic church. Protestantism grew out of this, and dissenting views were sufficiently widespread that Katharina von Bora joined the movement in April 1523. She and eleven other nuns sneaked out of their convent by hiding in barrels from grocery deliveries and made their way on a wagon to Wittenberg. This was political action, as escaping from vows was a violation of law when church and state were the same.

No romantic, von Bora was motivated by her own independent thinking. She never had met Luther and didn’t marry him until more than two years later. He was 41 and she was 26, and they had six biological children plus four they adopted. In addition, she boarded a constant stream of students and other visitors who might stay for years. A Saxon noble who had adopted Lutheranism gave them an estate that previously was a monastery, and she supervised everything from cattle breeding and beer brewing to its on-site hospital.

Luther respected her, and unlike the common practice of the time, made her his sole heir when he died in 1546. She had earned much of that herself, as she managed their businesses while he preached and wrote. Their happy marriage was a key factor in drawing many people to Protestantism. Especially with the hymns he wrote for their children – “Away in a Manger” is one – they developed a new style of religion truly based on family values.


Doris Weatherford writes a weekly column for La Gaceta, the nation's only trilingual newspaper. With pages in Spanish, Italian, and English, it has been published in Tampa since 1922.
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