After more than a century and a quarter, the Pledge of Allegiance continues to exercise a profound and powerful influence over Americans. Incredibly, the many political battles and legal trials have not really altered it.
On the contrary, the periodic eruption of wrangling over the Pledge, its wording, its constitutionality, and its meaning, have helped shape Americans’ view of themselves, sometimes to the left and sometimes to the right, without having sent Bellamy’s oath to the dustbin of history or relegated it to the status of historical footnote. In fact, it has become something of a national Rorschach test, constantly revealing what it means to be an American. Like the Constitution, though with far fewer words, the Pledge is a “living” document, one whose identity is bound up with vigorous discussion, interpretation, and struggle. If combined with its continued popularity—recited more often than any other document of national identity—its longevity makes the Pledge seem almost like a “founding” document of the American experiment.
In this sense, the Pledge is both a timeless reaffirmation of basic shared principles and a shared ritual, like the singing of the National Anthem or voting on election day. Recitation as part of a group makes one part of something larger, but what is that “something”? If it is the idea of liberty, then why should we say it? And shouldn’t we be free to reject it? After all, we don’t require the singing of the Anthem—or even voting. How did the Pledge rise to status of Commandment?
The answer to that, as we’ve seen, is not so simple. At the heart of the American experiment is change and reinvention, such as the “living” Constitution, subject to reinterpretation. Yes, we are a nation of laws, but we are also a nation that believes firmly in the people’s ability to change those laws—at their will.
Thus Governor Michael Dukakis vetoed a Massachusetts bill requiring teachers to lead classes in the Pledge of Allegiance and “paid dearly for it in his presidential campaign,” as William Safire wrote in 2004. Taking on the Pledge is akin to spitting on the flag. What Dukakis did, as the George H. W. Bush campaign was more than happy to point out, was insult the flag, which is America. Dukakis gamely tried to argue that he was doing his patriotic duty, upholding the Constitution, but it didn’t wash. The Pledge was as American as apple pie, maybe more so. And it had the advantage of brevity, the ring of a jingle—“See the USA, in a Chevrolet.” It is conceivable that, as with the Chevy, we will remember the Pledge long after the flag and the republic for which it stands disappear.
For the moment, however, the flag, the Pledge, and the Republic survive. In fact, over the last decade, in part because of the events of September 11, 2001, the Pledge has become more prominent in schools than ever. The Christian Science Monitor reports that “since 9/11 more state and town laws actually require students to say the Pledge of Allegiance than ever.” In 2004, Safire counted forty-two states with mandatory recitation laws.
For some, reciting the Pledge in school is what makes it, well, a school. Like show-and-tell, the Pledge belongs to time-honored primary education traditions. And this is a testament to Bellamy’s genius: if you get school participation, you get lifelong learners. Habits of patriotism are set early. And if they are set in school, they endure.
It will thus be interesting to watch the Pledge as we reinvent and remake our school system. In a recent dispute over the virtues of homeschooling, for instance, a Washington Post editorial, “Parent Says Some Things Can’t Be Taught at Home,” prompted one traditional public school mother to write that her son in kindergarten was “learning to be part of [a] group, raise his hand to be heard, say the Pledge of Allegiance, wait quietly during a moment of silence and so much more.” Can’t do that at home.
Or can you? Some homeschooling parents (and there are now over a million in the United States, and the number is growing as online learning takes off), recognizing that the Pledge offers something irreplaceable, do recite it at home. “Each morning when it’s time to go to school,” reported the Pasco (Washington) Times, “the Seal children gather around the dining room table. Their mother leads them in morning prayers and the Pledge of Allegiance. Then the studies begin promptly at 8 a.m.” So deep is our cultural association of the Pledge and school, that recitation of the words can have the effect of turning a dining room into a classroom. But how enforceable is it? Principals can peek into classrooms to make sure their teachers and students are conforming. Who will be looking into our dining rooms? Will the Pledge disappear in the same manner that it took hold?
Let’s recall for a moment that when the editors of the Youth’s Companion first hatched the idea of a celebration of America’s founder, Christopher Columbus, they promoted the quadracentennial as a celebration of American schooling itself. A brilliant marketing strategy—what member of Congress would oppose schoolchildren reciting a patriotic oath?—such joining of the Pledge and schools also placed patriotism at the heart of public education at a time when public education was still a remarkably decentralized institution. (New York State, for instance, at the beginning of the twentieth century, had ten thousand autonomous school districts; today, with ten times the population, it has a little more than seven hundred. America’s attachment to state and local autonomy is a serious one. Though today, our public school system seems “national” in scope and we are debating “national standards,” we should recall that Thomas Jefferson’s proposal for a “Bill for the More General Diffusion of Knowledge” as part of the revision of Virginia’s laws in 1779 was largely defeated. “Despite his distrust of central authority,” writes E. D. Hirsch, “Jefferson encouraged the devising of a common curriculum in order that ‘the great mass of the people’ should be taught not just the elements of reading, writing, and arithmetic, but also that ‘their memories may here be stored with the most useful facts from Grecian, Roman, European, and American history,’ as well as ‘the first elements of morality.’ ”
And though Bellamy managed to gather a nationwide consensus for his Pledge, there were still plenty of members of Congress who were adamant about the federal government not paying for it. And we can gain a better appreciation of Bellamy’s feat knowing how autonomous the thousands of schools in the United States were. It was the beginning of the creation of a national identity for the industrial age, at its most basic level: through the nation’s children. And Bellamy offered just twenty-three words; an amazingly easy way to patriotism.*
With the exponential growth of homeschooling and its kissing cousin online learning, things could change dramatically for our Pledge.† But for now millions of American children, standing in classrooms across the country and as yet unacquainted with words like “allegiance” and “indivisible” are still repeating the phrases. It is one of the first extended quotations a child will learn—and remember for life. So ingrained from childhood is it that those of us who haven’t recited the Pledge in years can pull it up from some primal memory cortex. Not long ago, a thirty-eight-year-old man who had been in a coma for six years miraculously awoke. His first words were “I love you, Mommy” and later, the first sixteen words of the Pledge of Allegiance: “I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America and to the republic—.” Was it significant that the man stopped before “under God”? Or was it, as the doctors said, a “medical miracle,” not a religious one?
If the Pledge is intrinsically bound up with school, it is not merely for its educational properties or to teach grammatical or civic literacy. More important, the words recited at the beginning of a school day serve a ritual function. Like the National Anthem before a ball game, the words of the Pledge form a moment outside mundane time, demarking one part of the day from another. It signals a ritual start, and in that it gains power beyond the meaning of its words.
The Pledge does not end with grade school. Throughout the country, in city councils, state legislatures, meetings of benevolent associations such as the Rotary Club or the Kiwanis, patriotic groups such as the Veterans of Foreign Wars, or DAR, and Boy and Girl Scouts, the U.S. Congress, at the start of political conventions the Pledge of Allegiance is the beginning of business. The business of America: with liberty and justice for all.
And for both children and adults recitation of the Pledge is also more than just a starting gun to a hectic day or a meeting; it is a “community building” exercise, a momentary “coming together” before we pursue the individual liberties the Pledge confirms. The recitation of the Pledge—a pledge to the flag, after all—confirms our membership in a group, a “republic for which it stands,” and to the smaller group of the classroom or the assembly floor. We gain power in a group, which is the seat of nationalism, a country coming together. Aren’t we stronger for it as a nation? The schoolchildren who chant the Pledge together are learning their first civics lesson: participation. And while there are patriots who recite the Pledge by themselves—and it’s too early in the Internet era to know its impact on our gathering rituals—the oath remains, at bottom, a communal mantra.
Whether this participation can or should be coerced is probably the only question that remains unanswered—and is, most likely, unanswerable. Most Americans would agree that the Pledge is a wonderful summation of American values; many believe, though, that its mandatory recitation undermines those values. That question promises to be an ongoing, possibly endless, dialogue, and no doubt our Supreme Court will be called on to make another judgment call, just as presidential candidates, depending on the temper of the times, will undoubtedly continue to wrap themselves in the flag—and its Pledge.
In the meantime, like the National Anthem, the flag, and the bald eagle, the Pledge belongs to the country’s collection of patriotic symbols, enjoying solid public approval ratings. According to a 2008 Gallup Poll, 77 percent of Americans feel that children should be expected to recite the Pledge in school every morning. (There is some partisanship in this number: 89 percent of Republicans want it recited, but only 62 percent of Democrats do.)
But what is patriotism? What is its function? How do we come by it? In order to answer those questions, it is helpful to reconsider for a moment the recent history of the use of the Pledge in our politics, during which, it’s safe to say, both the best and worst of patriotic impulses were on display. We can, as the aphorism has it, “wrap” ourselves in the flag, as a way to protect us from the elements or shield us from criticism—or prevent us from answering the tough questions.
So it was in 1964 when Barry Goldwater’s political commercial featured schoolchildren reciting the pledge intercut with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev threatening to destroy America. Khrushchev complained that his “We will bury you” quote was often taken out of context, but those protests mattered little in the frenzy of an American presidential campaign.
Twenty-four years later, during the 1988 presidential campaign, it was Democratic Party nominee Michael Dukakis who found himself trying to explain why he had vetoed a Pledge recitation law in 1977 when he was governor of Massachusetts. Dukakis rightly pointed out that the Supreme Court had, in the 1943 Barnette decision, struck down enforced recitation laws. “A fired-up Mr. Dukakis responded that Mr. Bush wasn’t fit to be President if he couldn’t understand the Constitution,” reported The New York Times. “Mr. Bush replied that he understood the Constitution but that the Massachusetts bill had never been legally tested; had he been governor, he would have signed it and let the Supreme Court decide.” Game, set, match.
The Pledge wins. The popular actor Charlton Heston, who joined Bush at campaign rallies, would lead audiences in recitations of the Pledge. Democrats gamely fought back, having Garrison Keillor, “the homespun humorist,” as the Times called him, lead the Pledge at the Democratic convention. Mr. Bush ended his GOP acceptance speech with the Pledge. “Everyone seems to be trying to out-pledge everyone else,” said the Times, which went on to opine, “It’s silly. The Pledge expresses noble sentiments and celebrates shared values. But the Pledge is not the issue. The issue is whether the Pledge can be required. It does nothing to elevate the level of political discourse to turn a complex Constitutional question into a litmus test of patriotism—or of how to vote in November.”
In one of their more heated exchanges, during a televised debate in late September of 1988, Bush was asked by a questioner about his Pledge attacks on Dukakis. “I think I am more in touch with the mainstream of America,” the vice president replied. “I hope people don’t think I am questioning his patriotism. I am questioning his judgment.”
Dukakis shot back, “Of course he is questioning my patriotism and I resent it.”
But Dukakis’s indignation proved ineffective against the GOP’s caricature of him, and Bush was right about being in better touch with mainstream America, which loved the Pledge—probably more than the Constitution, whose Amendment “freedoms” have always served more to protect minorities than buttress the mainstream. In any case, the Pledge issue stuck and Bush went on to win in a landslide victory.
The lesson was lost on no one. Both the House of Representatives and the Senate subsequently instituted a recitation of the Pledge before opening their sessions, and as Richard Ellis has pointed out, “The Pledge had become the third rail of politics,” and the nation demanded, and continues to demand that its office seekers pass the “patriotism test.”
If this political jockeying seems to confirm Samuel Johnson’s quip that “patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel,” more recent events offer a much muted picture.
The events of September 11, 2001, and the years since have marked a turning point in the history and cultural relevance of the Pledge. The spontaneous rise of patriotism after 9/11 combined with Michael Newdow’s “under God” lawsuit, created, as it were, a perfect storm for the Pledge. But overnight the context had changed.
For the fifty years prior to the attacks on the World Trade Center, the Pledge was seen as a bulwark to communism. The addition of “under God” to the text of the Pledge, at the height of McCarthyism, was intended to provide a counterpoint to the “Godlessness” of our Russian enemies. After the Berlin Wall and the Soviet Union, however, the Pledge remained locked in the Cold War vortex. Thus it was that only a few months before 9/11, when Virginia state senator Warren E. Barry saw his Pledge mandate proposal being watered down by colleagues, he called them “spineless pinkos.”
Almost overnight, after 9/11, the anti-Communist rhetoric that surrounded the conflict over the Pledge ended, and in the months that followed, the flag and the Pledge were framed once again by the rhetoric and images of a “hot” war, not a cold one. The image of the three firefighters raising the flag at ground zero became the iconic image of the tragedy and of American resilience in the face of adversity—and, not unnoticed, reminded the country of the courage of the Marines at Iwo Jima during World War II. A powerful and spontaneous movement to recite the Pledge sprang up nationwide, reminding us again of Bellamy’s genius in creating what can only be called one of the best jingles of jingoism ever written.
As has often been the case with the Pledge, this new patriotism made itself felt first and foremost in the schools. There, patriotic symbols appeared with such suddenness and in such numbers that it almost appeared as if the nation was trying to erase the sickening images of the destroyed New York City skyscrapers, the hole in the Pennsylvania field (that saved the nation’s Capitol), and the huge hole torn in the side of the Pentagon. Reported Kevin Sack in The New York Times:
As a surge of patriotism has washed over the country in the wake of the terrorist attacks, nowhere has the revival been more omnipresent than in schools. Hallways and classrooms have been decorated with bunting and posters of Uncle Sam. Hundreds of thousands of dollars have been raised for relief efforts through penny drives and bake sales. Blood drives have been held on campuses. Flags are showing up on clothing, book bags and lockers. . . . Schools that had mothballed the Pledge of Allegiance, like Batavia (Pa.) High School, have dusted it off, and those that had left its use up to teachers have made it mandatory. Celebration USA Inc., a civic group based in Orange County, Calif., hopes to synchronize a nationwide school recitation of the pledge at 2 p.m. Eastern time on Oct. 12. Teachers and principals report that once slouching students now stand at rapt attention and virtually shout a pledge they used to mumble. “You can actually hear people say the Pledge now,” said Cedric E. Brown, the student council president at Jonesboro High, about 20 miles south of Atlanta.
In New York City, the site of the tragedy, the Board of Education passed a resolution, by a unanimous vote, one month after the attacks, to require that the Pledge be said (though it did not mandate participation in the recitation) at all public schools every morning and at every schoolwide function. In fact, the resolution was almost identical to one already on the books, but which had been routinely ignored, according to many observers, since the end of the Vietnam War.
Nevertheless, over the course of the following year, similar measures were adopted in Tennessee, Illinois, Montana, New Hampshire, and Pennsylvania. The vote in the Pennsylvania House was 200 to 1. In places where such laws already existed, they took on a new meaning. In Virginia, State Senator Barry, who had chided committee members as “pinkos,” now found his bill to have been exceedingly “timely.” Before 9/11 his Pledge law was met by criticism, indifference, and boycott in many Virginia schools. Afterward, no one objected. “Before the terrorist attacks, everyone just sort of stayed in their seats,” said Katherine Dodson, a fifteen-year-old sophomore at H.B. Woodlawn school in Arlington, just across the river from the Pentagon. “No one even acknowledged the fact that we were supposed to be saying the Pledge. It’s hard for a school to come together—the Pledge of Allegiance was the last thing I thought our school would come together and do.”
The states had their say; so did the federal government. On September 13, 2001, President George W. Bush, and former presidents Clinton, Bush, and Carter, recited the Pledge together at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. And less than a month after the tragedy, Education Secretary Rod Paige sent letters to 100,000 schools recommending a simultaneous recitation of the Pledge. It was an idea, he later said, he got from a teacher.
Indeed, a “Pledge Across America” initiative had begun more than a decade earlier, in the years preceding the largely ignored centennial of the Pledge in 1992, and was spearheaded by a California substitute teacher named Paula Burton. Burton hatched the centennial idea after writing “indivisible” on the blackboard of her fifth-grade classroom and hearing students say that it meant “can’t be seen.” (Humorist Art Buchwald was asked if he was aware of the Pledge’s centennial and he quipped, “Not only was I aware of it, I was there.”)
And Rome, New York, was not ignorant of the anniversary made famous by its favorite son. “Pride and affection were evident as an estimated 2,000 people turned out to honor both the centennial of the Pledge of Allegiance and the memory of its author,” began a story in the Rome Daily Sentinel. New York’s first lady, Matilda Cuomo, was at Fort Stanwix National Monument, and camera crews for two of the three national broadcast networks had been in town to film segments for their morning shows. “Pride in country doesn’t play well in some communities,” said the pastor of the local Baptist church, capturing the mood of the country better than he may have intended, “but in Rome it’s a beautiful symphony.” It was also the First Day of Issue for a Pledge postage stamp (first-class mail was then 29 cents).
In the ebb and flow of political iconography, the Pledge was at a low-tide moment in 1992, a year of relative peace and prosperity in the United States (it was the year in which Bosnia and Herzegovina seceded from Yugoslavia, Quebec voters decided to stay with Canada, John Gotti was convicted of thirteen counts of racketeering, Mike Tyson was found guilty of rape, and Johnny Carson left the Tonight Show. Oh, yes, and Bill Clinton defeated George Bush for president that year—and the Pledge played no part in it).
By October 2001, of course, the nation was at war. And there was no lack of enthusiasm for a patriotic act.
“Our flag is a symbol for all Americans that we are protected from violence and terrorism,” Secretary of Education Paige wrote to the nation’s public school leaders. “It is important for teachers to display that freedom and patriotism by focusing on the flag.”
No doubt September 11 had changed the equation. What at its worst had been a cynical ploy of partisan politics became, in the hour of crisis, a symbol of real unity. The group activity of reciting the Pledge reaffirmed founding principles that were suddenly threatened. “I think it is important that at a time like this we all focus on the positive,” Principal Janet Foster, of Fox Mill Elementary School in Herndon, Virginia, said after the “Pledge across America” event. “I want these children to feel safe, that we are all in this together. The Pledge is another way of showing how we feel as a group.”
Eventually the super-patriotism of September 11 relaxed, and recitations of the Pledge were less monitored. The further the country moved away from the emergency, the more comfortable it became with loosening mandates on the recitation of the national oath. Even by the end of November of 2001, the District 3 school board in New York City, ground zero for 9/11, had decided that its thirty-one schools should decide on their own to say the Pledge in the morning. “Requiring students to blindly repeat the Pledge is no different than the Taliban requiring children to memorize the Koran and repeat it by rote, without understanding why or what they are saying,” said Larry Sauer, the board member behind the move.
Only in America!
Barely two months after the most lethal attack on the United States since Pearl Harbor and already someone was comparing the victim to the aggressor.
And by July of 2003 a federal judge struck down a law requiring Pennsylvania school students to recite the Pledge. U.S. District Judge Robert F. Kelly said the law was an improper attempt to circumvent Barnette, the Supreme Court’s opinion issued sixty years earlier.
What really brought to an end the period of spontaneous patriotism was the war on terror itself. To the extent that the Pledge represents fealty to national purpose and policy, as much as to core principles, the diminished enthusiasm for saying it represented America’s increasing ambivalence to the Bush war. (A loss of enthusiasm for the Pledge followed Vietnam as well.) As communal grieving gave way to a controversial war, the solidarity around the Pledge could not last.
In late September 2001, barely three weeks after the fall of the World Trade Center, a day after the start of Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan, a Wisconsin school district banned a mandated recitation of the Pledge. Even in a media jam-packed with news of vital and historic impact, the Pledge decision would come to command national attention as television stations, newspapers, magazines, Matt Drudge, and Rush Limbaugh, rushed to heap scorn on the school board as unpatriotic. And several weeks later, on October 15, the board met to reconsider and was met by an audience of twelve hundred who shouted the Pledge, and followed it up with a chant of “USA! USA! USA!” By a vote of 6 to 1, the board overturned its earlier decision.
The shift from the use of the Pledge as a unifying force immediately after 9/11 to its familiar incarnation as a battering ram against woolly-headed “liberals” and the “cultural elite” was complete within six months. But it was half a year in which much had transpired. Indeed, the shift in the role of the Pledge corresponded to a transformation in the national mood as the country swung from mourning to a demand for justice, even vengeance.
This sentiment was never entirely lacking after the attacks on the World Trade Center. On September 20, President Bush famously told a joint session of Congress: “Either you are with us or you are with the terrorists.” His assertion in his State of the Union address on January 29, 2002, that there existed an “axis of evil” was another landmark on the road to full-fledged war.
But if much of the country was taking its cues from the tone of the president, the event that completely polarized opinions around the Pledge was the decision by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in June 2002, agreeing with plaintiff Michael Newdow who complained that the Pledge was unconstitutional.
Only in America.
The proximity in time of the attack on the World Trade Center and the finding that the Pledge was unconstitutional, barely nine months apart, was uncanny. The two events, one inspiring instinctual and voluntary patriotism and the second challenging such patriotism, displayed an almost schizophrenic American temperament. Either that, or it was a sign that we were returning to the normalcy of the democratic (arguing) landscape. Still, the reaction to the court verdict was extraordinarily lopsided. The president called the decision “ridiculous.” The Senate voted unanimously to condemn the decision. The House Majority whip, Trent Lott (R.-Miss.), called it “absurd.” The Senate Majority leader, Tom Daschle (D.-S. Dak.), lambasted it as “just nuts.”
Although America has a long history of arguing over religious freedom, the Ninth Circuit court’s decision brought the Pledge squarely into the “for us or against us” arena at a time when the president himself had said it. And few politicians, whatever their political stripe, were willing to argue against the oath, especially at a time of intense patriotism. It was not long after the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in the Newdow case that the 2008 presidential contest began in earnest, and the rumor began to circulate that Senator Barack Obama (D.-Ill.) refused to say the Pledge. “Barack Obama, born in Africa, is a possibly gay Muslim racist who refuses to recite the Pledge of Allegiance,” according to a Washington Post summary of the rumors.
These slurs stood in stark contrast to Obama’s Democratic opponent for the nomination, Senator Hillary Clinton, who had attacked the 2002 Ninth Circuit court decision in 2008, saying “I believe the court misinterpreted the intent of the framers of the Constitution and instead undermined one of the bedrocks of our democracy, that we are indeed, ‘one nation under God,’ ” and then, to much applause, reiterated her belief that “every American child should start the day saying the Pledge of Allegiance.”
Obama’s patriotism continued to be an issue even after he secured his party’s nomination, though this was perhaps a predictable response to the fact that his Republican opponent, Senator John McCain, was a war hero and former POW who had pledged allegiance to a makeshift flag while imprisoned in North Vietnam.
Twenty-four years after the Dukakis defeat, however, Obama understood the stakes and refused to be tarred with the same brush. Utilizing the Internet, he created a website, fightthesmears.com, beating back the rumors and posting a video of himself leading the Senate in the Pledge. As we know, he won.
In the end, however, the Pledge faces an uncertain future. The failure of the Supreme Court to resolve the “under God” question leaves a lingering doubt about that phrase’s constitutionality. And a new twist to the critique came in 2005 when the Virginia Supreme Court had to declare that the Pledge, despite “under God,” was not a prayer. Understandably, a group of thirty-two Christian and Jewish clergy objected, claiming that if children are supposed to say the phrase without meaning it as a religious affirmation, “then every day, the government asks millions of schoolchildren to take the name of the Lord in vain.”
Francis Bellamy, the former minister, would have appreciated the theological conundrums that his Pledge had occasioned, though his Pledge was decidedly not religious. And one suspects that had he been presented with “under God” on that hot summer night in 1892, by some muse, or an editor, he would have rejected it. His son, David Bellamy, told Congressman Kenneth Keating during the 1953 debate that he objected to the rewriting. And Bellamy’s great-granddaughter, Sally Wright, weighed in in 2002, replying to a story in The New York Times by Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.:
To the Editor:
Re “When Patriotism Wasn’t Religious,” by Arthur Schlesinger Jr. (Op-Ed, July 7):
My great-grandfather Francis Bellamy wrote the Pledge of Allegiance in 1892 for the widely read magazine Youth’s Companion. A deeply religious man, he was also a strict believer in the separation of church and state, one who opposed parochial schools on the grounds that the state should educate its children. He intended the Pledge to be a unifying statement for those same children.
By adding the phrase “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance in 1954, Congress was attempting to distinguish the politics of the United States from godless Communism. Like other actions taken by Congress at that time, this change divided our nation further rather than uniting its citizens.
As a regular churchgoer who has voted both Democratic and Republican, I believe that my great-grandfather got it right. A Pledge of Allegiance that does not include God invites the participation of more Americans.
Pleasant Hill, Calif, July 7, 2002
While the debate over forced recitation seemed a straightforward question about what a school can and cannot compel a child or teacher to do—or say—the God question is something else. It is embedded in the oath, as clearly and starkly as “indivisible,” “the republic,” and “liberty and justice.” Even God-fearing and God-believing people are uncomfortable with it.
Does recitation of the Pledge signify tacit support for government policies? Does the “under God” clause signify allegiance to God as well as country? These questions remain unanswered—perhaps because there is no way to answer them. Nonetheless, the fact that the Pledge continues to be recited even as it is argued over does reveal certain characteristics of American life and beliefs, the most notable of which, perhaps, is a deeply felt insecurity. For at heart, the Pledge is a binding oath, meant to guarantee the fidelity of citizens to the republic. That could be why, besides its usage as starting ritual and a community builder in schools, legislatures, and meeting halls, it also finds its place in the induction of new citizens to the United States. A promise of loyalty. In 2008 alone, one million people were inducted as new citizens of the United States. For them the Pledge doesn’t merely start the school day, or the day of government business; it starts, rather, the new life of being an American.
This use of the Pledge, as a “loyalty oath,” echoes its origins in the midst of a historic wave of immigration, something akin to a national identity crisis. The nation needed to be reminded of its core values. But the fact that schoolchildren, legislators, and others still recite the Pledge on a regular basis may indicate an even deeper uncertainty. Here lies the fundamental paradox of the Pledge: it bespeaks both pride in a nation “with liberty and justice for all,” but also suggests that without constant reaffirmation those principles would disappear.
Those who have been on the anti-Pledge side of the debate have often pointed out the schism. Hence Justice Robert Jackson’s dissenting opinion in the 1943 Gobitis case:
To believe that patriotism will not flourish if patriotic ceremonies are voluntary and spontaneous instead of a compulsory routine is to make an unflattering estimate of the appeal of our institutions to free minds.
Likewise, when Minnesota governor Jesse Ventura, the former professional wrestler and Navy SEAL, bravely vetoed a bill mandating recitation of the Pledge in 2002, he asserted that “patriotism comes from the heart. Patriotism is voluntary. It is a feeling of loyalty and allegiance that is the result of knowledge and belief.”
After 125 years, if polls are to be believed, we remain a nation that feels more comfortable being safe than sorry—and perhaps in need of a reminder of what we “stand for.” The Pledge continues to enjoy overwhelming support, as does the inclusion of the “under God” clause. As former presidential speechwriter Peggy Noonan put it, “I’ve concluded the Pledge of Allegiance is about as perfect as imperfect humans could devise. It pledges loyalty and love to a symbol of our nation, the nation itself, and its Constitutional form; it asserts unbreakable unity, acknowledges God, and aspires, at the end, to democratic perfection. Pretty good! And in only 31 words.”
The question remains: are twenty-three words better? Judge, dear reader, for yourself:
I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the republic for which it stands, one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.
I pledge allegiance to my flag, and to the republic for which it stands, one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.
The debate over the Pledge of Allegiance will no doubt continue—at least, we should hope that it does. For it is in that quarrel and uncensored debate that we find the essence of our democracy and the health of our republic.
*It should also be noted that this was the same era when Catholics decided to start their public school system. In fact, the 1884 Baltimore conclave of Bishops ordered all American parishes to start a school. It proved an amazing unifier for Catholics: by the 1960s not only did Catholics educate one out of every eight American children, but they had helped enable the election of the country’s first Catholic president, John F. Kennedy. And as we have already seen, Catholics were no slouches in the patriotism department: American flags, to this day, fly right alongside the Vatican flag in their classrooms (and churches).
†According to the National Center for Education Statistics, between 1999 and 2003 the number of homeschooled children increased from around 850,000 to roughly 1.1 million, a 29 percent jump in four years. Some people in the movement believe that the number is now as high as 2.5 million. We also now have a North American Council for Online Learning (NACOL), which reports a hectic pace of growth in the online education world: in 2000, there were 50,000 full- or part-time enrollments; in 2005, there were 500,000; by 2007, it was a million. The growth of online learning enrollment in the last ten years, according to Forbes magazine, has been 30 percent annually, which is why the business magazine estimated that the market was worth $300 million in 2008.