To Pledge or Not to Pledge (Allegiance)

In a scrapbook in my attic, I have the certificate I received when I memorized the Pledge of Allegiance in kindergarten. The scratch and sniff sticker still smells like oranges. In high school, a classmate of mine questioned the fact that we didn’t recite the pledge in accordance with Washington State Law, but mostly I was just jealous that she was on the local news. The controversy over the pledge didn’t really hit me until I 1)became and teacher and 2)came to terms with my atheism.

At high school dance competitions, we were expected to stand uniformly with hands over our hearts during the pledge and anthem. One team member was a Jehovah’s Witness, and honestly, teenage me thought it was a little weird that she sat down. Thanks to a pamphlet from the parents of a student, I came to understand that Jehovah’s Witnesses see the recitation of the pledge as idolatry. While my class dutifully said the pledge daily, I respected my students’ right to sit or remain silent on religious grounds. I also did my best to shield them from shaming or ostracizing by answering other kids’ questions matter-of-factly and standing next to them during patriotic songs.

Sometime in my twenties, I realized that Christianity didn’t fit my beliefs. I decided that I would recite the pledge but leave out the words “under God.” I never made a production out of it – I just stopped. I don’t think it’s appropriate for those words to be included when this country was founded on the division between church and state. The pledge has been framed as a patriotic rather than a religious exercise, but for me, that just doesn’t stand up. I also don’t think most people know that those words were added to the original pledge in 1954 in response to the Communist “threat.”

As a teacher, I questioned the appropriateness of asking young children to swear an oath of loyalty that they’re not even necessarily capable of comprehending. This passage from The Portable Veblen has really stuck with me: “Indivisible. As a kid he thought it was a stuttered invisible. And that it referred to the flag itself. Kids making pledges on misunderstandings. He’d thought it meant the flag flew invisibly over all.” It feels uncomfortably like indoctrination for me. Honestly, I think we’d be better served in our efforts to raise good citizens by having schoolchildren participate in acts of service rather than repeating words they don’t understand.

I reject that saying the pledge is a requisite of patriotism. I don’t think any person or group has the right to decide what patriotism looks like. For me, patriotism means protecting First Amendment rights, embracing diversity, and supporting my deployed husband. The Supreme Court, in 1943, agreed with me: "If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein.”

There have been numerous legal challenges to Pledge of Allegiance, but I don’t think it’s going away. I can accept the pledge in schools (and legally, I have to) with a few caveats:

·      Student and teacher participation is optional.

·      No discipline will be imposed on those who refrain.

·      Non-participation is not questioned (e.g. parental permission is not required, reasons other than religious grounds are accepted, etc.).

I would love to never again see a meme come across my social media feeds saying that everything is the worst because kids don’t say the pledge. The fact is, 45 states require it. However, I’d like the same folks to consider the following: a coerced, compelled, or hollow pledge means nothing. Freedom makes this country great, and that includes the freedom to participate in the Pledge of Allegiance or abstain from it. Period.