A familiar battle is brewing in New Jersey, where state law requires the daily recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance in public school classrooms. An anonymous atheist family is teaming up with the American Humanist Association to sue a local school district, arguing that the phrase "under God" in the pledge "marginalizes atheist and humanist kids as something less than ideal patriots."
This is another installment in the long legal history of battles between citizens who prefer not to recite the Pledge of Allegiance and citizens who want everyone to.
The conflict is based on a poignant question: Can a citizen decline to recite the Pledge of Allegiance and still be a patriotic American?
Of course he can. I haven't recited the pledge in years and have no plans to start. But surely my patriotic credentials are acceptable: I'm a U.S. Navy veteran and a reliable voter. I observe all laws and pay my taxes and grazing fees. I always watch the State of the Union address, and I'm a sucker for high-flying, aspirational national rhetoric. I feel a proud twinge when the national anthem is played before a ballgame.
But I'm no big fan of the Pledge of Allegiance. Its origins are dubious. Many assume that it dates back to our nation's founding, but actually it was written in 1892 by Francis Bellamy, a Christian socialist. Bellamy was responding to an explosion of new immigration, not just from traditional northern European sources, but from southern and eastern Europe, including many, like Catholics and Jews, that nativists like Bellamy considered "undesirables."
Almost from the beginning the pledge scuffed the consciences of otherwise patriotic Americans. Jehovah's Witnesses, for example, were reluctant to pledge their allegiance to any power other than God. Since 1954, when the phrase "under God" was added to the pledge in response to the threat of atheistic communism, objections have been raised by Americans who don't believe in the implied Christian god in the pledge or who have understandable qualms about mixing theology into any state-sponsored public ritual.
In short, the pledge has been the source of considerable conflict and division. Americans have lost their jobs and been assaulted and children have been expelled from school for responding to their consciences. And even though the Supreme Court ruled clearly in 1943 that no one can be compelled to recite the pledge, few elements of human culture have more potential to generate coercion and persecution than an unhealthy mix of patriotism and religion.
Some citizens have good reasons to decline the pledge; an American shouldn't need any reason, at all.
In any case, we say the pledge much too often. In Texas, like New Jersey, public school students pledge their allegiance every morning to both the American flag and the Texas flag. They pledge again before football games. My city council and school board open their meetings with the pledge. So do the members of the governing board of the college where I work and before subcommittee meetings, too. This is a lot of rote, mechanical pledging, and one wonders if anyone's patriotism is actually bolstered by a pledge that is prone toward empty ritual.
All in all, I suspect our nation would be better off without the Pledge of Allegiance. At best, it inclines toward meaninglessness, and it can quickly turn into a coercive litmus test for patriotism. Before long we're looking around to see who's not wearing a flag pin.
But if you insist, I propose instead a "National Pledge Day." Every two years, the president could lead the nation in a meaningful recitation of the pledge on national television. Maybe delete the divisive "under God" and substitute "with tolerance." Time it to coincide with the beginnings of ballgames and other public assemblies. Some would pledge at home and, this being America, I predict "pledge parties" at local bars.
Some good Americans will decline, but many others would welcome a meaningful celebration of national unity and allegiance.
Who knows? I might even join you.
John M. Crisp teaches in the English Department at Del Mar College in Corpus Christi, Texas. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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