The Pledge and Positive Patriotism
Published: April 13, 2011
“I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the Republic for which it stands, one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”
These 31 words were part of my morning routine for more than a decade before coming to college. If you went to school in America, you probably at least heard the Pledge played over the P.A. everyday. Unless, of course, you went to a school like Public School 29 in Brooklyn’s Cobble Hill, where they ignored the Pledge until a parent recently complained that her daughter didn’t know one of our country’s cultural cornerstones.
In schools throughout the country, complaints against the Pledge have convinced administrators to ignore laws requiring the recitation of the Pledge every morning. Most protests rest on a few arguments: children shouldn’t be forced to recite something they can’t possibly understand; the phrase “under God” unfairly imposes religious beliefs on everyone; the Pledge as a whole doesn’t serve a meaningful purpose.
The first argument falsely supposes two things: that children don’t understand the words they say and that the Pledge is unique as something teachers force kids to memorize and recite. Bill Cosby based an entire show on the insightful things kids say. And what school did you go to that didn’t teach you the alphabet by repeating the ABC song every day?
As for the phrase “under God,” most arguments point out that the original Pledge of Allegiance didn’t include any religious references, then go on to mention the 1950s’ McCarthyism behind it. A little more research finds that the first instance of “under God” being included in the Pledge was on the anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s birth in 1948. The phrase was meant to honor Lincoln’s inclusion of the phrase in his Gettysburg Address, as in, “that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom.” And George MacPherson Docherty, the man who successfully pushed for the phrase’s inclusion in the Pledge, had no connections to Joseph McCarthy.
The phrase’s origins aside, I don’t understand how someone can say that the Pledge of Allegiance isn’t worthy of inclusion in the daily school routine. As brief as it is, the Pledge serves two important purposes: encapsulating a few major tenets of our nation and building a sense of community amongst strangers.
Many fail to see the usefulness of a Pledge of Allegiance. Far more than just a promise of loyalty to the state, the Pledge brings together diverse groups of people under one common oath. New York, a city where a single block can hold neighbors with ties to dozens of mother countries, needs unifiers like the Pledge. Offering allegiance to your country is one way to unite yourself with those around you, and it’s not the same as the blind loyalty to the government that the Pledge’s opponents fear.
Those 31 words are more than just an oath of loyalty to our nation. In a compact and easily memorable package, they summarize the basic tenets upon which the founders built our nation. The Pledge reminds us that we are not a monarchy; we are a republic. It reminds us that we overcame the divisions of slavery and are now an indivisible whole. It reminds us that we strive for justice, making everything as fair as possible for all citizens. Most importantly, it reminds us that we have liberty in all aspects of life, even in our choice of whether or not to participate in the recitation of those 31 words.
When we ignore the Pledge of Allegiance because of complaints like those discussed, we let hypersensitivity become antipathy. What about the sense of community it provides between strangers and the national history it encompasses? Despite the Pledge of Allegiance’s few surface flaws, I think it deserves 11 seconds of our day.
The Pointless Pledge’s Time Has Passed
Two weeks ago, parents Joe and Winnie Fischer succeeded in reinstating the Pledge of Allegiance at their daughter’s elementary school in Cobble Hill after finding out that Public School 29 had not been reciting the Pledge for years. To which I respond: Really?
Of all the things to fight for, why mindlessly reciting the Pledge? Why not fight for healthier school food, improving science scores or even a new set of basketballs to promote physical activity and replace those taped-up sacks kids throw around? With everything that’s wrong with the public school system today, I would hope that parents have more to be passionate about than a couple of words their kids probably don’t even understand.
There is a time and a place for the Pledge of Allegiance and elementary school is not it. Chances are, unless he is gifted with some sort of supernatural intelligence or a really good dictionary, your five-year-old does not have any legitimate concept of what allegiance is. To the average kid, allegiance probably sounds more like an airborne disease than an oath of loyalty to the nation.
And what position are children in to take an oath of loyalty to anything, especially with something as flawed as our Pledge? The Pledge was originally written in 1892 by socialist minister Francis Bellamy who, knowing that women and African-Americans were then considered less than men, intentionally left out the word “equality.”
To make matters worse, the controversial words “under God” were only added by Congress into the pledge in 1954. Oh wait, isn’t that—it couldn’t be—no. Isn’t 1954 right smack dab in the middle of the McCarthy Era? You know, that time when the government was rounding up innocent Americans and accusing them of communism, all thanks to the efforts of one Joseph McCarthy? Man, that guy is just one giant party foul.
In fact, when the resolution to add the words “under God” was introduced to Congress, one senator prefaced the resolution by declaring, “I believe this modification of the Pledge is important because it highlights one of the real fundamental differences between the free world and the Communist world, namely belief in God.” Now that doesn’t sound very representative of a free, tolerant and diverse America. Face it; words carry a lot of weight—even something as simple-sounding as “under God” has severe implications.
Proponents of reciting the Pledge of Allegiance in schools argue that doing so will teach children loyalty to their nation and inculcate the founding principles of the country in future generations, but forcing children to listen to or robotically recite a list of words that they are desensitized to is not the way to do it. The Pledge of Allegiance is, from its inception, not representative of America’s history and ideals.
If you want American children to really feel something for the country they’re in, teach them about the Constitution. Educate them about their government and what it does for them. A woefully small number of students in America have any idea what the three branches of our government are, or even who their senator is. Coercing impressionable children to pledge themselves to a country they know nothing about is an icky, low-handed move.
Not saying the Pledge of Allegiance does not make you any less American or patriotic. If you really want something catchy for kids in our schools to learn, teach them Lee Greenwood’s “Proud to Be an American”—at least we can sing along to that one.