What Does the Pledge of Allegiance Teach?

Photographer: Mark Wilson/Getty Image

By Leyden Marks

In many schools across the United States, school children routinely stand to recite the contemporary Pledge of Allegiance in their classrooms, usually in the morning.

Some of the common arguments against this repetitive school-day exercise are familiar to me. (Some background on various text versions and the dissimilar complaints follows below). However. I haven’t heard before, from anyone else, one thing that really bugs me regarding the practice.

I just don’t like what the ritual itself teaches to classrooms of youngsters across that nation

Here’s my protest:  It seems to me that this incessant “pledging of loyalty to the nation” is teaching students that it’s acceptable, even expected, that you don’t really need to mean what you say!

In school, with the Pledge, superficiality and hollowness in one’s declarations is ratified.

In school, just uttering the words of assurance repeatedly is actually passable behavior. You needn’t have to mean them. In fact, it seems that you aren’t even expected to mean them.

In school, you must repeat the Pledge of Allegiance (over and over, again and again) because you apparently didn’t take to heart what you just said yesterday (or last week) when we previously said the Pledge. Or maybe conditions somehow changed overnight?

It appears that the school suspects that you didn’t seriously mean what you said before. Why else would it be asking you to keep up the loyalty pronouncements?

If you took the pledge seriously in the first place, you’d say it, and that’d be that. You’d have genuinely pledged.

Some People’s Take on the Pledge

Students today can escape this persistent ritual, if they seriously wish to do so. Not every student has to participate because, in 1943, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of plaintiffs who sought exemption from the exercise on religious grounds. (Subsequently, schools could no longer require students to recite the Pledge if it was contrary to their religious beliefs.) Taking pledges was serious business for those Jehovah’s Witnesses folks.

In a later case against the practice, an atheist (a quite serious one) complained about the phrase “under God” in the Pledge. Michael Newdow was also taking the Pledge content quite seriously.

Those two words had been inserted into the text of the Pledge in 1954 by an act of Congress. Filed initially in 2000, the claimant contended that those added words endorsed religion and thus violated the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution. (Rationale: The practice of teachers, as agents of the government, leading students in a pledge acknowledging God promotes the belief the nation is under God, and that would be an article of monotheistic belief).

Wikipedia offers a summary of that case, which stirred much public controversy at the time and culminated in the Court simply avoiding the actual constitutional question that the claimant had raised. So the Pledge ritual has maintained its 1954 wording to date.

Looking Back Briefly at the Pledge Ritual

Even before 1954, the Pledge wording had changed from the original text, which was created for a one-time flag-raising ceremony in Columbus Day celebration, but was quickly transformed into a ritual.

The first (Oct. 12, 1892) stated:

“I pledge allegiance to my Flag and to the Republic for which it stands, one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”

Notice the words “my Flag” in the first pledge. This phrase was in the Pledge until 1924, when a National Flag Conference announced that the words “my Flag” would be changed to “the Flag of the United States of America.” (This change stemmed from a fear that that the children of immigrants might confuse “my Flag” for the flag of their homeland)

Thus the second pledge was:

“I pledge allegiance to the Flag of the United States of America, and to the Republic for which it stands, one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”

The “under God” phrase was added during the Eisenhower administration at the urging of the Knights of Columbus in order to distinguish the United States from the “godless atheistic’ communistic Soviets. President Dwight D. Eisenhower, fearing an atomic war between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, joined the lobbyist requesting changes be made

The original Pledge was recited while giving a stiff, uplifted right hand salute. This manner was criticized and discontinued during WWII, due to its being so alike the gesture used by citizens of Nazi Germany to salute Hitler. The mode of saying the pledge shifted to one of uttering the words with right hand held over the heart, which was established practice by 1954 when the final change in wording took place.

To Pledge [Anything] – Doesn’t it Mean Something?

According to the dictionary, a pledge is a “solemn promise.’ You make a promise, a serious promise. Some dictionaries follow that with “…to do something” or “…to refrain from doing something.”

Google it, and see if you don’t agree that the term’s various meanings should convey something serious. To pledge is to make a sincere, earnest, intense vow.

If that’s the case, then why has the Pledge of Allegiance become so not like a vow?

As a promise, it’s shallow and hollow, not heartfelt and sincere. It isn’t really an honest, grave, pledge of loyalty, anyway.

In a marriage ceremony, one takes a vow. It’s serious. Although the feeling may dwindle and even disappear over time and circumstance and end with divorce, the one-time vow works at the time. It certainly isn’t repeated next day at breakfast Ornext week

Nor does it have to be repeated, ever again. One has pledged. It was a deep promise, sober, intense (certainly not frivolous). Even if, after many years, a couple decides to “renew the vows, the occasion is taken as one with some solemnity. A pledging to one another is intense.

But what about the Pledge of Allegiance? This pledging of loyalty to the nation. The words being uttered are mechanically issued. Much like the scout pledge, too oft-repeated, the substance rings rather hollow. “Saying the Pledge’ in the classroom, words routinely uttered, becomes more like hanging up one’s coat before being seated than issuing a genuine promise. One needn’t really take it to heart.

Are these who so loudly protest any change whatsoever in the current Pledge (like going back to the pre-“under God” secular version to which everyone might accede), the same automatons who

memorized the words before they could think what making a real sincere loyalty vow would entail?

They’ve been taught. Quite enough back then (and now) to simply utter the words over and over again. One takes the words seriously, perhaps, but not the Pledge.

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