We all knew who they were. There was Bill in my neighborhood. There was Ron in my Jr. High classes. There was Nick who drove my school bus. There was Janet in my elementary school classes. We knew they refused to pray the Lord’s Prayer. More obvious was their refusal to stand and pledge allegiance to our flag. Although this was a daily occurrence it generated more comment as we approached holidays or the 1960 national election. “Are these people communists?” “They won’t even fight for our country.” “We should force them to stand and pledge.” I heard these comments and more.
In my undeveloped political mind I was rather indifferent. They did me no harm but why not stand? I discussed this with my parents and my dad explained that they “were exercising their right to free exercise of religion”. As a WWII veteran he had no issue with someone’s refusal to go to war. Still, as a student in a class led by a very patriotic teacher, I had my doubts. Should I say anything? In my sole act of solidarity with my classmate, I ordered chocolate milk instead of “pop” for an upcoming party. I felt it was a bit wrong to have anyone be the only one.
Over time I learned more about the beliefs of their faith. True, I found little common ground with their views of history, science, or religion. But as time passed, I found increasing sympathy with their dissent. In an era when there were major arguments against prayer in schools and the role of religion in politics, it was obvious that their private expressions were not disrupting the stability of our country. They were not communists, in fact their faith was persecuted in the Soviet Union. They were no more un-American than the generations of my Quaker ancestors.
Ironically, my classmate who had years before complained about their refusal to fight managed to avoid the draft with a bogus medical deferment. One might consider who demonstrated strength of commitment and who bent the rules for personal benefit. Today, when offered a Watchtower at my front door, I simply say, “No, thank you.” When to door is closed, I think, “God bless America!”