Courting controversy at the start…

A recent Facebook discussion led me to ponder both the evolution of the Pledge of Allegiance, and my unease with the entire notion of reciting it. My discussion-spurring comment was posted in response to an article about the often contentious ‘under God’ addition that was made in 1954, but it was that I did not recite the Pledge at all (& have not since I was a teenager). My concern lies not with the Cold War fueled need to separate ourselves from the ‘Godless Communists’, but rather with the entire notion of declaring fealty to the flag – and the nationalism that implies. 

First a very brief historical note – the Pledge was written in 1892, and was not formally adopted by Congress until 1942. It was revised in 1954 to add ‘under God’. So it has not really been a long-standing tradition, even though most of us grew up with it.

The constitution has always been a passion of mine, and I still sometimes regret the choice I made to not pursue a career in law. Partially because of that focus, I don’t always look at things in ‘expected’ ways. As an example – I debated for legalized abortion in a Catholic school a couple of years before Roe v Wade was decided – and I won the debate. I think the nuns doing the scoring were traumatized. 

Like all baby boomers, I grew up during the Cold War, surrounded by constant reminders of WWII, and of Japan’s long history of Nationalist Imperialism, along with images of Nazi Germany’s SS. And of the Hammer & Sickle and the Soviet expansion. My parents were both extremely conservative (conservative enough that my mother was given John Birch Society literature by a co-worker who thought that she would find it enlightening), but interestingly enough, neither of them were ‘flag wavers’. They merely thought that the flag burners were being incredibly disrespectful, and that maybe the First Amendment was carried too far sometimes. 

By the time I was in my mid-teens, I was trying to reconcile Catholicism, constitutional law, and the compacts that need to exist to keep us together as a stable society. I was also trying to understand the more extreme ‘my country – love it or leave it’ attitudes that so many of my friends’ parents, and the politicians that my parents supported, seemed to have. It was during this period that my unease about the Pledge took root.

The first concerns that I really paid attention to came from friends that were either Jehovah’s Witnesses or identified as Fundamentalist Christian. They felt that being compelled to recite the Pledge was a violation of their religious freedoms because it caused them to break the First Commandment by putting Country ahead of God.  But somewhere around that time, I also began to realize that compelling anyone to recite the Pledge of Allegiance, particularly schoolchildren, was not very far removed at all from the Nationalist fervor of the Nazis, or of the ‘Godless Communist’ indoctrination that we wanted so badly to separate ourselves from. I love my country, I don’t think anywhere else is a better place to be, and I support our active military & our veterans, but I don’t recite the Pledge when I am in a situation where it is recited. I do stand at attention out of respect for our country, and for my fellow citizens, though.

Rather than the anticipated knee-jerk ‘you are even more far gone than I thought’ responses, I’m hoping that I can spur some genuine reflection. And a serious discussion of what the Pledge really means to you. Because, admit it, as kids we gave it no thought, and as adults we are seldom in a situation where it’s recited & when it is, we recite the words from memory and sit back down, without giving it another thought. And if you display the flag – are you following the flag code in how to display it? It seems to me that in the post-9/11 world we inhabit, many people display the flag in inappropriate ways – and yet I’m sure that they would find my views on the Pledge to be highly disrespectful, if not treasonous. And, for my more religious family and friends,  if you do feel that pledging allegiance to the flag is meaningful & important, how does it fit in with your understanding of the First Commandment? 

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One thought on “Courting controversy at the start…”

  1. I never gave much thought to the strange implications of proclaiming your loyalty to the nation every morning in school, although in my mind something felt odd enough that the moment I learned that we wouldn’t get in trouble for not pledging I stopped.

    Thinking about a lot of the dystopia themed things I come across in literature and TV, a lot of the more military controlled ones all want declarations of loyalty to the government/city/country. I also know a decent amount about Japan’s militaristic and nationalistic history along with nationalism they still display now. But this nationalism doesn’t require daily declarations or pledges.

    As a small side note, the “under God” has always made me uncomfortable for reasons of me being non religious and not wanting to feel like my country might be against me for it. If we’re a nation united under God then what do those who either don’t believe or aren’t sure of do? And this is with the generous definition of “God” to blanket cover religious belief in a higher being in general – regardless of what you might call “Him”. I’m ready to bet that the people who made that change back in the cold war had a more specific God in mind.

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