Taking the Pledge

20 October 2003

Supreme Court to Rule on Pledge of Allegiance

The Supreme Court has decided to hear a case that may result in the "Pledge of Allegiance" getting bounced from school rooms for being unconstitutional. In a bout of church and state silliness that baffles most outside the US, atheists and fundamentalists have fought this battle for many years. Not once has the real matter been addressed; does the child mouthing the words understand them?

The pledge itself is a rather banal set of words cobbled together by 19th century socialist (yes, America used to have them) Francis Bellamy in 1892. "I pledge allegiance to my flag ['the flag of the United States of America' was substituted during World War II for fear immigrant children could say these words and think of Hitler], and to the Republic, for which it stands, one nation indivisible ["under God" was added in 1954], with liberty and justice for all." Mr. Bellamy considered throwing in "fraternity" and "equality" but decided against them as they were too controversial for public schools.

Looking at the pledge as it stands, the entire exercise is a waste of school time. The odds on the average eight-year-old understanding what the verb "pledge" means or the noun "allegiance" are slim at best. "Republic" is probably not understood by a substantial number of American adults. "Indivisible" may be understood after lunch, when the children get out their math books, but in a political context, America has always been a divided nation.

In other words, demanding that 60 million school children mumble their way through this or demanding that they do not is a sterile debate. They don't understand what it is they are saying. Patriotism can be one of the highest virtues when it is founded upon a reasoned, mature understanding of what one's polity is and does. It can also be the lowest of vices when it is an excuse for ignorant tribalism.

America made it through the War of Independence, a terrible Civil War and an expansion from sea to shining sea without a pledge to a flag. Whether it needs one now is unlikely, but if there is to be one, under God or not, it is meaningless unless the vow is taken in earnest and with understanding.