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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4 Responses to What Does the Pledge of Allegiance Teach?

  1. Kevin says:

    I’ve been taking action on the Pledge in my children’s schools for over 10 years. Eventually winning district-wide concessions.
    The Board of Education adopted new policy which requires the following two actions:

    1. “At the beginning of each school year, students and parents shall be informed of the District practice of reciting the Pledge of Allegiance to the Flag of the United States of America and informing them of their first amendment right to choose not to participate in this daily exercise.

    2. “To ensure that the patriotic exercises are conducted as required by California law and to abide by the ruling of the U.S. Supreme Court, the following language shall be used at every school when introducing the Pledge of Allegiance:” “You are now invited to stand and recite the Pledge of Allegiance.”

    For a couple of years in elementary school, I worked with the principal to have this explicit instruction used, “It’s time for the Pledge of Allegiance. If you choose to say the Pledge, please stand. If you chose not to say the Pledge, please stand or remain seated, quietly.”

    Every one of us with a child in school can do this.

    Beyond that, here are many more reasons to have the Pledge of Allegiance removed from public schools:
    1. Meaning lost in endless repetition, no explanation given, no history provided.

    2. Comprises an ideological viewpoint that is forced on little kids by authorities to whom they are dependent.

    3. The two above, taken together, is the definition of brainwashing.

    4. The absurdity of having to repeat a pledge daily that apparently is only good for 24 hours.

    5. The conforming routine of it, which makes you feel like a brain-dead robot sheep as opposed to a citizen of a free country who enjoys individual liberty.

    6. Subordinates the people to the republic, which we are told on good authority was created by us, with allegiance to us, not us to it.

    7. Exalts nationalism over federalism contrary to the basic principles of our Republic. Subsuming states and individual rights to central government is a necessary pre-requisite for a centralized, socialist government to gain traction. This was an explicit goal of Francis Bellamy, the socialist author of the Pledge.

    8. Encourages jingoism. Antagonistic tribalism. No other countries have their citizens swear a loyalty oath to their government (except Mexico and the Philippines, mimicking the U.S I think N. Korea may do it, now).

    9. Concocted by a company to sell flags as part of a marketing campaign to compel schools to buy more flags while instilling socialist-style nationalism in American children.

    10. Unsavory connection with Nazis. The Pledge originally featured the Nazi-style salute. In fact, Hitler got it from the Italian fascists who much admired, that’s right, kids in America doing it while saying the Pledge. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bellamy_salute (Man, if that doesn’t give you chills)

    11. Is patriotic lip-service in place of, even at the expense of, actual civic engagement and action. (Symbolic patriotism)

    12. Is uncritical patriotism at the expense of maintaining oversight over government. (Blind patriotism)

    13. Considered by many Christians idolatry, taking the name of God in vain, swearing oaths, serving two masters.

    14. Divides the nation (and the classroom) along religious lines. Only those represented by the Judeo-Christian “God” need apply as patriots (Ironic that “under God” comes right before “indivisible.”)

    15. Is hypocritical on the part of adults, bullying little kids into doing something that adults themselves don’t do. (You say the Pledge every day, do you, and on a government mandated schedule?)

    16. And last, but not least, pledging allegiance to a flag is just stupid.

  2. Joe Cobb says:

    “To pledge” is an excellent point to make about this Symbol of Nationalism. It is a hollow and empty “pledge,” but like any totem “it unites us” as a Nation.

    The problem here is that treacherous pronoun “US” whom it somehow unites. The pronoun can mean (i) “You and Me” or (ii) “Me and My Friends, but not you.”

    The political idea of a nation-state appeals to the fallacy in “us.” The treacherous collective first-person pronoun bamboozles those who don’t notice it. A totem or ritual helps to reinforce this not-noticing, so pledge the children (future taxpayers).

  3. Andre Ryland says:

    Very simply I changed my phrasing some years ago and when I say it I have a number of people want to rehear it. It is done in the same sentence rhythm. And I am pledging not to a flag, but to what my nation stands for, not it’s structure. Here it is.
    “I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America and to democracy for which it stands, one nation as it’s goal, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”
    Join me, and let’s finish the revolution.

  4. Alyssa says:

    Kevin, I absolutely agree with you – very well said and quite amusing as well.

    But please do not confuse the Soviet dictatorship, it’s satellite states and similar regimes of that kind with actual socialism. Those had nothing to do with socialism, quite like the so-called “national socialism” in 1933-1945 Germany was a kind of label fraud to fool the voters and supporters of the party. While the case seems to be quite clear with the latter who deliberately abused the word “socialism” to attract the left-wing voters in the late 20s/early 30s, the similarities between both systems are astonishing – and apalling – giving one chills, as you said. Stalin and his succeeders weren’t better even in the slightliest way though they liked to believe they were as being “anti-fascists”.

    Unfortunately up to date many left-wing activists, self-called “socialists”, have forgotten or never quite known what it really means to be a socialist and define their political views – in fact therefore being dependent to nazis/fascists and other scum of the like – as being “anti-something” – which means nothing else than their ideas being based on hate against certain groups (ideas, systems…) instead of solidarity – which is the basical idea of socialism.
    This was largely ignored in the USSR as well. Not to speak of the mass killings, torturing, prosecution and other horrible, blood-chilling crimes the regimes have done terribly wrong in ideological, political way too. One of the most humane, brilliant, hopeful, worthy, progressive and important ideas of the last centuries (if not millenia) has been disavowed and besmirched by their actions. They distorted and perverted the true ideas of socialism to their core and in many – even key – aspects turned them into their very opposite. In fact, that system was nothing more than a very poorly and mindlessly state-ruled capitalism. Which was one of the many reasons why it finally had to collapse. Along with the abstruse idea to keep a whole country – on top of all the biggest in the world – behind the Iron Curtain, just as it was the reason why it was “necessary” at all.
    Same goes for today’s self-proclaimed Chinese “socialism”. That’s why it so treacherously easy progressively shifts towards open private capitalism. At least they are a little smarter and more pragmatic in their positions and a bit more modern since their Iron Curtain is on the internet.

    Sad truth is: the world hasn’t seen even one actually socialistic country so far (and I doubt it would be possible if limited to one country at least in the long run). If there was one really functioning and true to it’s ideas they would rather have to establish an Iron Curtain against the people wanting to get in from the outside, not those wanting to escape it. But of course they never would – because this would be against the principle of solidarity and mutual support. They would welcome everyone wanting to participate and let go freely everyone who wouldn’t like to.

    That’s why it is so difficult to establish.
    Socialism can only be based on freedom and participation by choice.
    It has nothing, absolutely nothing to do with flags, brainwashing or central governments.

    This is not only a sad but wide-spread misunderstanding (for many people socialism and communism have become if not synonyms but direct associations to cruel dictatorships) but also one of the greatest crimes of these systems.
    Their leaders have sacrificed the incredible potential of these ideas to their personal ambitions and therefore made it almost impossible probably for centuries to establish a free, humane, democratic socialistic or communistic system – which we would desperately need in these times. Especially as it has the potential to finally unite humanity without corrupting people like the current system does.

    The problem is that this requires a change of minds not only in political or economical matters but deeply and profoundly as a whole worldview (another great misunderstanding, unfortunately spread among most socialists and communists alike as the majority of them puts accents largely if not exclusively on economical questions and naively believes that a change of the economical system would somehow magically change people’s minds as well – it can only happen the other way around as history has proven – and as the minds always change this happens only slowly over a long time, certainly not in a violent revolution – and the change of the minds is the by far more important goal).

    That’s why I’m so fascinated by the Brights. I believe movements like that promoting a rational, secular, humanist worldview are exactly those little steps into the right direction that we need. Especially as religion is one of the strongest and worst dividing forces in society spreading irrationality, bias, blindness and intolerance of all kinds.
    I hope the Brights movement will grow and thrive over time – but one earnest warning is due: it shouldn’t become simply “against religion”.
    People often feel the need to come together in groups and be “we against the others” as this is a powerful drive to make a group stick together. But over time this short-time benefit would wear out in shallow rituals like the Flag Pledge you so smartly critisised and annihilate all the positive effects that stem from this encouraging ideas the Brights stand for.
    Hopefully, this will not happen (or at least not so extremely) as the Brights apparently bring together notably intelligent, thoughtful people.

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