Many foreigners would be surprised to find out that we have something in the US called the Pledge of Allegiance. It’s recited in public schools across the whole country every day with students standing facing the flag hand over heart. It goes like this:
“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.”
To foreigners, the idea of all students standing up every morning chanting this probably sounds creepy. But since Americans are indoctrinated into chanting it starting in primary school, it goes unquestioned. Most American students don’t ever think about what the words mean. It’s just a ritual. I don’t agree with it, but I’m just giving rationale for why students go along with it.
American students aren’t legally required to stand for the Pledge. In West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette, the Supreme Court ruled that students can’t be compelled to stand for or recite the Pledge as that would constitute compulsory speech, violating the First Amendment to the Constitution. Also students can’t be required to justify themselves for not standing. So it is well within your rights not to stand as an American student.
You might still be socially expected to stand depending on where you live. It’s likely that most other students stand, so you’ll feel uncomfortable the first few times if you choose to sit it out. With time it does get easier to stay sitting though. It’s only a few seconds of resisting peer pressure anyway.
Content of The Pledge
Let’s break down what the pledge actually says. For starters, “I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America…”. It seems strange to pledge allegiance to a flag. A flag is a piece of fabric. What does it even mean to pledge your allegiance to a piece of fabric? Try figuring that one out.
The most controversial part of the pledge: “one nation under God”. The “under God” part was added in 1954 during the Cold War emphasizing the differences between the US and Soviet Union. Since then, monotheistic religion has been endorsed in public school through the Pledge. What happened to separation of church and state? There have been efforts by secular groups to challenge this.
“indivisible”. It’s not clear in which sense we are supposed to be indivisible. We are more politically divided than ever.
“with liberty and justice for all”. This is a nice thought. But it’s just not true. Our nation doesn’t have liberty and justice for all. We’ve certainly made progress, but still roughly half a million Americans not convicted of a crime are behind bars right now. Is that liberty and justice for all? What about the 1% of our population in prison being deprived of basic human dignity as you read this. Where is their justice? The Pledge says liberty and justice for all, not liberty and justice for only model citizens. I understand it’s a very high standard to meet, but we shouldn’t pretend we’re there yet.
Clearly the content of the Pledge has quite a few big problems. The only part I don’t take issue with is the part about the US being a republic. Everything else could be improved upon. I would avoid standing for the Pledge on the basis of its content alone. But there’s an even better reason not to stand for the Pledge, even if the problems with the content of the Pledge are resolved.
The Pledge is a Form of Brainwashing
When do Americans first learn the Pledge? Not as preteens or teenagers. We learn it from the first day of public school when we are too young to understand the meaning. We are too young to question it, to decide if we should be doing it or not. It’s not really presented to us as optional, even though legally it is. It’s just something we are all commanded to do. Truth be told, most teachers probably aren’t aware that it’s optional either.
The thought of a room full of students all standing facing the flag hand over heart chanting allegiance without thinking about it evokes a very uncomfortable feeling. It communicates a certain message even if you don’t say the actual words. It’s saying “You must love this country! You must be a sincere patriot!”. Any practice that tries to mandate how you feel is repulsive. It leaves students that don’t love their country feeling guilty.
Suppose you don’t love your country. Are you a terrible citizen because love isn’t what you feel? There’s this idea among many Americans that they love their country and others ought to as well. But this doesn’t make any sense. Patriotism is involuntary. It can’t be forced. Maybe you can be coerced or peer pressured into putting your hand over your heart and looking solemn, but that’s not real devotion to your country. It’s an empty gesture.
The Network Effect
If you’re an American student, you accomplish 2 important things by not standing for the morning brainwashing session:
You cause other students to think critically. Other students will notice you are not standing. This causes them to reflect on their standing which they previously never thought about. They might ask you why you don’t stand. That gives you the opportunity to explain the problems with the content of the Pledge and how it’s actually a form of brainwashing.
You make it easier for other students not to stand. If others decide to join you in sitting it out, they won’t feel alone in doing so. The more people that sit it out, the more standing students will feel the need to think critically about why they’re standing.
I stopped standing for the Pledge in high school (secondary for international readers). As a nonbeliever, I took issue with the phrase “under god”.
The most eventful thing to come of my sitting was a teacher confronted me over it before class in front of all the other students. He told me I have to stand and he asked me why I didn’t stand. I went to a conservative high school and I didn’t want to make an issue since I was surrounded by a class full of students that likely thought the same as he did. If I did say something, students likely would have chimed in to tell me why I was wrong. I didn’t want to be shamed by the moral majority, so I just said I didn’t want to talk about it.
In retrospect, I should have spoken up about why I didn’t want to sit even if I got shamed. It’s important for one’s voice to be heard, even if the message is unpopular.
At that time, I would have been satisfied with the Pledge if “under god” was removed. Since then, as you can see in this post, I’ve found many more objections to it besides violating church state separation. Now I wouldn’t support any pledge in public schools, regardless of its content especially if it’s performed before students reach the age of reason, it isn’t critically examined beforehand, and students aren’t explicitly told they don’t have to participate. Even then, teachers could still be biased against students that refuse to do it. And students that don’t might get bullied for it in conservative schools. It goes against the spirit of education, so better to just abolish it entirely.