“Nationalism is an infantile disease. It is the measles of mankind.”
As young Americans across the United States returned to school this fall, the insertion of God into the Pledge of Allegiance was again being questioned, this time in a case filed by the Appignani Humanist Legal Center on behalf of three public school students and their parents who, as humanists, feel the phrase “under God” should be removed.
Breaking it down, one wonders why any thinking person would feel compelled to recite the pledge with or without that phrase.
“I pledge allegiance…”
This amounts to nothing more than a hollow gesture of talking some sort of talk. As I was taught in English classes to avoid the passive “to be” verb, likewise “to pledge” amounts to a passive and shallow form of (non)action.
“…to the flag…”
A mere piece of cloth. Like the words of a pledge, it’s merely a symbol, which for me signifies nothing beyond the threads, the dyes, and the stitches holding it together.
“…of the United States of America…”
For all those with insufficient background knowledge of its history, its multiple cultures, its people, and its relationships to other countries of the world, what are they pledging allegiance to?
“…and to the republic for which it stands…”
Yes, a government whereby citizens have the right to vote for elected officials representing them, which is a concept and an empowering reality when enacted and carried out. However, we have a history and a legacy in this country that has denied, and continues to deny by law and by practice, this right, as we are currently witnessing in North Carolina, Florida, and other states with “voter suppression” statutes.
Yes, indeed, a single nation. But let us never forget that this nation, this E Pluribus Unum (“from many, one”) came from the diversity of the entire world: the traditions, the languages, the cultures, the religions, the belief systems, the totality of the human experience, which must be acknowledged, supported, cherished, valued, and nurtured, never again compelled to melt away into a Eurocentric, Protestant and oligarchically dominated, patriarchal, adultist, heterosexist, cissexist, ableist, ethnocentric stew of ruthlessly mandated conformity.
But whatever happened to that grand American vision of a wall separating religion and government, more commonly known as the separation of church and state?
The idea of adding “under God” to the pledge was originally suggested around 1948 by Louis A. Bowman, an Illinois attorney and chaplain for the Illinois Society for the Sons of the American Revolution. The idea gained popularity by 1951 when the Knights of Columbus, the world’s largest Catholic Fraternal Service Organization, passed a resolution to lobby the president, vice president, and Congress to make “under God” a universal and permanent addition to the pledge. This theocratic (Christian) imposition, passed by Congress and signed into law by President Dwight D. Eisenhower, found itself officially inserted into the Pledge on June 14, 1954 (Flag Day).
In a similar vein, “In God We Trust” became the national motto in 1956 during the formative years of the Cold War as a reaction to the “Godless” Communist Soviet Union. (“In God We Trust” was minted on U.S. coins by the Department of the Treasury in 1864 during the period of the American Civil War.)
Yes, possibly in the sense of commitment to “form a more perfect union.” But with this experiment we call the United States of America, our democratic process is bound to be messy, with inevitable divisions and fractures but hopefully also with mechanisms and systems continually expanding to encourage diversity of thought while maintaining the process of perennial change and progress.
Though defined in many individual ways, I see “liberty” as individuals’ inherent right to define, identify, and name ourselves, and to develop and maintain our sense of agency and subjectivity without others defining or controlling them. I ask us to assess whether we as a society have truly reached that point.
“…and justice for all.”
Yes, all. Not only those in socially dominant groups. I wonder whether the political right’s overriding notion of rugged individualism, with all its talk of personal responsibility amounts to doublespeak, meaning really that we need not maintain any of the safety nets put in place to assist our most vulnerable residents.
In the words of Martin Luther King Jr.: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”
Originally published in 1892 in The Youth’s Companion, a widely circulated children’s magazine, the Pledge of Allegiance was written by Baptist minister Francis Bellamy in commemoration of the 400th anniversary of the voyage and arrival of Christopher Columbus to the Americas. At Bellamy’s urging, Congress and President Benjamin Harrison passed Presidential Proclamation 335 fashioning the public school flag ceremony as the centerpiece of Columbus Day tributes. The Pledge of Allegiance was first recited in U.S. public schools on Columbus Day, October 12, 1892.
As it now stands, we, as a nation, ask (read: compel) young public school students to remove their hats (a Christian tradition signifying respect) and place their right hands over their hearts (which can signify righteousness, or a shield against that which is “sinister” from the Old French, meaning “on the left”). We then ask them to recite the words of the pledge, some of which many young people neither understand nor can pronounce—“indivisible,” for example—all of which smacks of jingoistic indoctrination at a time before young people’s cognitive and intellectual facilities have reached a stage of heightened critical consciousness.
That the words of the pledge were originally recited to honor Christopher Columbus, leader of ruthless imperialist conquerors, makes it all the more objectionable.
There’s an important distinction to be made here between two terms that are often used interchangeably: “patriot” and “nationalist.” A patriot, according to my copy of Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary, is 1) “a person who loves, supports, and defends his or her country and its interests;” and 2) “a person who regards himself or herself as a defender, especially of individual rights against presumed interference by the federal government.”
A nationalist, on the other hand, is 1) “a person who has devotion and loyalty to one’s own nation;” or 2) “a person who has excessive patriotism or chauvinism, which is a zealous and aggressive patriotism or enthusiasm for military glory, a biased devotion to any group, attitude, or cause.”
I often wonder about people who vehemently advocate for the recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance and adamantly affix and raise American flags to porches and house lawns and exaltedly wave them atop their speeding cars and pickup trucks. Just how patriotic are they? How many of them take the time to vote in local and national elections? How many volunteer to remove litter from parks or serve meals at soup kitchens? How many write letters to the editors of local and national media, and stay current on issues, laws, and policies affecting their communities and their nation?
Rather than conducting an exercise in thought control, let us instead awaken a culture of critical consciousness and deep inquiry as lifelong learners about our country (along the entire spectrum from the inspired vision undergirding this great nation to the gashes and ruptures along the way), and about the relationship between our country and other countries across this orb we know as “Earth.” This new attitude should inspire us to ever challenge, to engage, to work toward the advancement of the ideal on which our country rests, to eventually become that magnificent tapestry of individual threads of unlimited beauty and, yes, liberty and justice for all. Aside from words, let us fertilize the dream to fruition.
Certainly adults can make an informed decision about whether reciting the Pledge of Allegiance has merit for them as individuals. But how informed are five-, six-, and seven-year-olds in our schools when their teachers encourage them to stand at attention and recite the pledge? Oh sure, a student or a parent or guardian can have the student opt out of standing with their classmates in front of the flag in recitation. However, this opting out is very intimidating for the person who chooses to do so. They often face subtle and even overt pressures.
As we all have the freedom to pray and observe or not observe religious practices within our private spaces, so too do we have the freedom to pledge our allegiance to our country. I am questioning whether public spaces such as schools are, in fact, appropriate spaces.
The United States stands as a creative and noble concept, a vibrant idea, and a vital vision. It’s also a work in progress. Yes, our country has come far in working for liberty and justice for its residents, but we still have far to go. And this is possibly what separates the patriot from the nationalist, for the patriot understands and witnesses the divide between the reality and the promise and potential. The nationalist, on the other hand, is often unaware or doesn’t acknowledge that a gap exists.
And then there’s the matter of singing our national anthem, “The Star Spangled Banner,” at sporting events and even at symphony concerts, again while standing, head uncovered, right hand placed over the heart… but that’s fodder for another day.