I have not pledged “allegiance to the flag of the United States of America” in more than eight years. My personal objections to participating began as religious (see Anabaptist theology and practice). I was not teaching at the time, so like so many Americans, public situations that observed the pledge were a very irregular part of my life. Then, for the first four years of my teaching career, the pledge was recited at my school during first hour, which was my planning hour, so my non-observance was not an issue. Convocations, school board meetings, and Veterans Day assemblies are the most common occurrences where I am among my peers, the national pledge is observed, and I quietly refuse to participate.
It is quite easy to not pledge allegiance. I always politely stand and usually fold my hands in front of me. This is a very silent and non-disruptive form of protest. Everyone’s attention is on the flag, and everyone is speaking in unison. My silence and my right hand in the wrong place do not draw a lot of attention. Perhaps if I remained seated during the pledge, my behavior would draw more attention and thus be interpreted similarly to the high profile NFL protests of the national anthem. The influence of those like Colin Kaepernick have caused my objections both to the national pledge and to the national anthem to shift from the religious to the more political.
For 75 years, it has been unconstitutional for public schools to require or even compel individual students to recite the pledge. Teachers who are former or current military personnel sometimes find the 1943 Supreme Court ruling in West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette to be at odds with their personal experience and ideas of respect. Statutes regarding school observance of the pledge vary from state to state, but even where the pledge is required daily, there is no formal way to track if schools are observing this requirement. Whether or not a school recites the pledge daily is mostly determined by the level of patriotism among administration and the general convenience to the learning day.
Through mere repetition, our schools, especially our elementary schools, have woven the pledge into the very fabric of our society. Americans pledge for many reasons, and many Americans pledge for no reason at all. As with so many other rituals, in the process of being routinized, the pledge has lost much of its potency. Those who are mindful while pledging are likely filled with national pride similar to the way they would at the playing of a song such as “God Bless America.” Similarly, for many, pledging is simply a matter of nostalgia. It may mean something to them in a way that they may or may not understand. Americans reciting the pledge are unlikely to be thinking about fidelity to the U.S. government or considering the implications of the word “pledge.”
Americans pledge for many reasons, and many Americans pledge for no reason at all.
All kinds of Americans pledge allegiance, but the fiercest defenders of its sacredness tend to be social conservatives. But unknowing to those today that embrace pledging as an act that epitomizes conservative values, the pledge was written in 1892 by a self-described “Christian Socialist.” The National Education Association was even involved in the introduction of the pledge into American public schools. Leftist nationalism was clearly on the political scene at the end of the 19th century in a way that it is not today. In 2003, Gene Healy of the libertarian think tank Cato Institute strongly questioned why “conservatives support the Pledge at all, with or without ‘under God’?” Perhaps Healy and others could launch a conservative movement to formally end recitation of the pledge in public schools, citing its socialist propagandist origins.
Compared to national anthems, of which virtually every country has one, there are only a handful of countries that have national pledges. Besides that, there are some important distinctions between the performance of the national anthem and the observance of the pledge. It is not generally expected that people sing or even recite the words to the national anthem. The general expectation is to stand quietly with the right hand over the heart while the song is being performed. The song itself tells the story of the bombing of Fort Henry by British ships during the War of 1812. The national anthem does not include a promise of any kind and there is no call to duty for those who perform it or hear it. The reason the national anthem has been a source of controversy and protest is precisely because it is observed publicly much more frequently than the national pledge.
I cannot pledge allegiance because I do not agree with the majority of current U.S. policy, both domestic and foreign. If I were to pledge allegiance, I would be stating that I believe that the United States government is on the correct side of all international policy disputes. I have no plans to commit an act of treason, but that should not compel me to promise my loyalty to the U.S. government. I am not prepared to denounce my citizenship, but I would like to retain the future possibility of expatriation. To put it very plainly, the pledge of allegiance is very “America First,” and I am decidedly not “America First.” And in light of a resurgence of this political mantra, I refuse to take an oath to place America first. I do not want “America First” international relations. I do not want Trump’s “America First” version of fair trade. And I do not want “America First” immigration policies.
I cannot pledge allegiance because I believe that this nation is the most divided it has been in my 41 year lifetime. Of course, we are technically “one nation,” but that phrase is intended to evoke a sense of unity. Americans from all places on the political spectrum believe that there is a growing sense of disunity in the United States today. There has been a sharp rise in hate crimes sparked by the xenophobia and intolerance on display in the rhetoric of Donald Trump. Public demonstrations and protests are at levels not seen since the Vietnam War. We are a nation divided, and we have yet to turn the corner toward unification. I cannot publicly proclaim my confidence in the continuing solidarity of American society.
Americans from all places on the political spectrum believe that there is a growing sense of disunity in the United States today.
I cannot pledge allegiance because I do not believe that the U.S. government is providing “liberty and justice for all.” Where is the liberty and justice for the millions suffering under incarceration in our almost 50 year “War on Drugs?” Where is the liberty and justice for wage workers breaking their backs under a capitalist system that only fills the pockets of corporate elites? Where is the liberty and justice for young black men continually being slaughtered in the streets by a racist system of policing? And where is the liberty and justice for asylum seeking mothers having their babies stripped from their arms simply because they risked their lives for a better life?
Many people that are as disillusioned as I am may be able to pledge allegiance with an appeal to yet unrealized American ideals or from a place of belief in the spirit of the American people. I cannot. And yet, I am hopeful. I believe in progress. I believe that the arc of the moral universe does indeed bend toward justice. I believe that there will be better days. Will I pledge then? I don’t believe I will. Maybe someday in the future, I will be “proud to be an American,” but that feeling of ostensible patriotism will more likely come out in the form of humming along to the national anthem when an American wins gold at the Olympics.