Dump the pledge

Raised as a Jehovah’s Witness, a writer considers allegiance to God and country

Begat by a socialist minister, the Pledge of Allegiance has been vexing America’s courts since the McCarthy era.

Begat by a socialist minister, the Pledge of Allegiance has been vexing America’s courts since the McCarthy era.

A few weeks after 9/11, I was waiting for a store to open, when a man walked up, looked my battered car over and said, “Where’s your flag?” I suspected that there was no good answer to that question, but I told him that I didn’t have one. He offered to give me one of his or run over to the hardware store to get one for me. The explanation I gave undoubtedly didn’t satisfy him—I told him it would be disrespectful to put a flag on such a dirty, rusty old car—but then, I’ve had a long time to get used to having people unhappy with me where the flag’s concerned.

I was raised as one of Jehovah’s Witnesses, and in spite of the fact that I haven’t set foot in a Kingdom Hall since I was 18, I remember all too well exactly how testy Americans can get about the flag. From first grade on, the school year started with my mother accompanying me to class to explain, open Bible in hand, why I wouldn’t be reciting the Pledge of Allegiance. Usually, there was no problem, except, of course, for the attitude I’d get, often from students, sometimes from teachers.

For example, an elderly, much-loved retired schoolmarm substituted for my second-grade teacher, and, in addition to the pledge, led students in a rousing chorus of “Jesus Loves Me.” She considered herself too old to learn new tricks, I suppose, and sent me to sit in the hallway as punishment for refusing to salute the flag. Granted, any kid who grows up passing out Watchtowers knows what teasing is, but the grief I took for upsetting this kindly teacher, who had somehow become convinced that I was an infant Communist, went well beyond the norm.

These things come to mind this month as the U.S. Supreme Court prepares, for the third time in only slightly more than 60 years, to consider the relationship of the Pledge of Allegiance and the Constitution. There seems to be, among otherwise quite reasonable people, an unquestioning acceptance of the idea that the Pledge of Allegiance belongs in the public-school classroom. It’s surprising to learn that, far from being as American as apple pie, the Pledge of Allegiance has been problematic at best throughout its relatively—at least, compared with that of the flag it venerates—short history.

There have been months of controversy surrounding the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals decision in favor of the plaintiff—Michael Newdow of Sacramento (see “Newdow redux” by Chrisanne Beckner, SN&R News, December 19, 2002)—who believes the words “under God” in the pledge constitute a state endorsement of religion that violates the First Amendment. Newdow’s victory in a suit about the Elk Grove School District’s policy of requiring children to open the school day with the Pledge of Allegiance has brought the issue to the forefront of public discussion. It also resulted in a rarely seen spectacle: Dozens of federal lawmakers gathered on the steps of the U.S. Congress reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, with special emphasis on the “under God” phrase. Perhaps we should be awed that they could still remember the words so many years out of grade school.

With all this discussion, there are probably few who haven’t heard of the pledge’s intriguing history. Written by Francis Bellamy, a Christian minister who was also an avowed socialist, at the turn of the last century, the pledge was intended by its creator to bring about the sort of civic mind-set that would lead to a classless utopian society. Bellamy’s egalitarian political ideas eventually got him tossed from his pulpit, but when the National Education Association stepped up to support and promote the pledge in 1892, it caught on as a means of inculcating patriotism in schoolchildren.

From the beginning, it seemed that everyone wanted a hand in editing Bellamy’s work. The original pledge, which was published in The Youth’s Companion, a popular magazine of the day, read: “I pledge allegiance to my Flag, and to the Republic for which it stands, one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” In the 1920s, the American Legion and the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) lobbied to change the words “my Flag” to “the Flag of the United States of America,” apparently to avoid the possibility that schoolchildren might mistakenly pledge their allegiance to any old flag that came along.

The pledge was recited in classrooms across the nation, often by legislative mandate, and in 1954, the words “under God” were added by Congress, at the behest of the Knights of Columbus. It’s positively mind-boggling to think of a socialist, the American Legion, the DAR, the Knights of Columbus and Congress all collaborating on anything, but there you have it: the Pledge of Allegiance as it is recited today.

Of course, as Joan Didion notes in her essay “Fixed Ideas: America Since 9/11,” there’s a move afoot to add yet another phrase to the ever-expanding pledge. Some people want to say, immediately after “with liberty and justice for all,” the words “born and unborn.” We can rest assured that Americans will never run out of controversial agendas that the Pledge of Allegiance must be bent to serve.

Saluting the flag became a compulsory exercise in school districts across the country during the period leading up to the United States’ entry into World War II. Ostensibly, such an exercise would differentiate a free America from the totalitarian regimes that dominated the newsreels of the time. Exactly how the image of children lined up to salute an American flag expressed this difference may not be all that clear to contemporary audiences, but it fit the tenor of the times.

When school boards began insisting that all children salute the flag, the practice became a problem for Jehovah’s Witnesses, who steadfastly have refused to pledge their allegiance to anything other than their God. Two Witness kids were expelled from school for refusing to participate in the exercise, and their parents sued the school district, claiming that reciting the Pledge of Allegiance was a violation of their religious beliefs.

In 1940, the first of the Supreme Court decisions, Minersville School District v. Gobitis, went against the Witnesses, when the court found that the government had a compelling interest in forcing children to display their patriotism daily. Many Jehovah’s Witnesses removed their children from public schools rather than allow them to be expelled. Ironically, at the same time that Jehovah’s Witnesses in the United States were being punished by American courts for refusing to pledge their allegiance to the Stars and Stripes, Witnesses in Germany were being carted off to concentration camps for refusing to salute the Nazi flag with a raised palm and a hearty Sieg Heil.

The matter returned to the high court in 1943, when the decision in West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette reversed Minersville. Justice Robert Jackson wrote the majority opinion in that case, a precedent that still stands and is the reason that all public schools that require the recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance allow students to be excused from participating on the basis of conscience.

Jackson’s opinion also questioned the wisdom of compulsory patriotic exercises, but the popular will can be a juggernaut. What is it about this supposedly simple exercise in patriotism, one that millions of American schoolchildren engage in every day, that makes it such a lightning rod for dissent? Perhaps because, like any form of speech that deals in sweeping ideas and weighty symbols, the Pledge of Allegiance isn’t at all a simple exercise—patriotic, religious or otherwise. And, as any 6-year-old can attest, it’s not particularly easy to learn, either; I remember kids struggling with “indivisible” and invariably saying “invisible.”

But the fundamental question is one that Jackson addressed in Barnette and that the current debate over the presence of God in the pledge seems to be ignoring. It’s not what the Pledge of Allegiance does or doesn’t say that’s the issue; it’s the attempt to enforce patriotism. Let’s face it, compulsory patriotism isn’t patriotic at all. Forcing one to profess loyalty to and love of country in a rote public ceremony flies in the face of all that makes the country worthy of loyalty and love. As Jackson put it, “To believe that patriotism will not flourish if patriotic ceremonies are voluntary and spontaneous instead of a compulsory routine is to make an unflattering estimate of the appeal of our institutions to free minds.” Do we think so little of our fellow citizens that we believe the only thing that keeps them from treason is some grammar-school tongue twister?

The same impulse toward patriotic unity that led a man to offer to buy a flag for my car is, in a larger and more dangerous form, the lock-step patriotic unity that stifles criticism and imprisons dissenters. There is a direct progression from the mindless recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance in the name of national unity to the mindless acceptance of the gutting of the Bill of Rights in the name of national security. Attempting to force people to love the United States will only ensure that there’s nothing left of it worthy of love.

It’s worth noting that I have never recited the Pledge of Allegiance. I’ve also never failed to vote, even in the off-year local elections. I’ve never failed to pay my taxes or to tear up when I see a flag-draped coffin or to root for the U.S. women’s soccer team. I’ve also never stopped being grateful for a country where I am free to suggest that we’d be better off if we dumped the Pledge of Allegiance as part of the public-school curriculum and instead demonstrated patriotism every day, where the kids can see it.