To the Republic, Four Witches Stand

An Essay by Trevor Stone

July 1, 2002

Not surprisingly, the 9th Circuit Court decision that the phrase "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance is unconstitutional has provoked a cacophony of punditry and reinvigorated the flag waving which had slowed in the months since September 11th. I have not undertaken to read the volumes of editorials printed over the weekend. Instead, the ruling brought to my mind a question which I don't think is being addressed in the impulses of patriotic display. Why are kids saying the Pledge in the first place?

I entered the public school system at Crestview Elementary, a middle-of-the-road suburban American school. Unlike other Boulder schools I attended, Crestview didn't fit into the hippie-activist Boulder stereotype, so my experiences there are probably similar to those of millions of other kindergartners. We walked in straight lines, called our teacher by her last name, put our heads on the desk when done with our work, and got in trouble for coloring outside the lines. Every morning we would all face the American flag, put a hand over our chests, and produce some strange incantation about the flag, witches, and invisibility. I'm sure the people making a fuss about this don't want kids to be imagining women in black riding broomsticks and casting spells of invisibility as American values. "I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the republic for which it stands, one nation, under God, with liberty and justice for all." The only words in that phrase longer than three letters which I understood (in the Pledge's usage) were "flag," the name of the country, and "nation." And I was an advanced kid, already reading. I wouldn't be surprised if most kids don't understand all the words until at least middle school, and I suspect that many people who incanted this ritual daily for six years still don't fully comprehend what they said.

What does the Pledge mean? A pledge (in this sense) is similar to a promise, though wider in scope -- "I promise to help you pack," "I pledge to serve in the military." A pledge is binding. Yet agreements entered into by children are not legally binding, nor do people consider a pledge made under duress as true as one made freely. Forcing children in a class to recite a pledge, therefore, produces an untrue and legally meaningless claim of commitment. A court would refuse to hear the suit of someone demanding a million dollars promised him by a 2nd grader on the playground, and I rightly expect no legal ramifications from when I got married in preschool. What, then, is the purpose of having children recite the Pledge every day? Will someone press them into service because of a pledge they made for the same reason they sang the alphabet -- because the teacher told them to?

The content of the Pledge is odd as well. If I pledge allegiance -- that is, give my loyalty and devotion -- to another person, I promise to help him as a friend or as vassal to his feudal lord. If I pledge allegiance to a political group, I promise to work on behalf of the group and its goals. But what does it mean if I pledge allegiance to a flag? Do I have to display it proudly? Do I have to show it off to people? Could I similarly pledge allegiance to the Mona Lisa? Pledging allegiance to the republic for which the flag stands is not meaningless, and I can understand people's desire to do so, though it should be done only after consideration of the full effect of such a statement.

The rest of the pledge reads as a description of the republic. It's one nation, not 50 separate ones. Indivisibility is fairly wistful -- almost any map of the country divides it into at least 50 portions. Authority is divided into federal, state, county, and municipal governments, as well as a host of other institutions. Part of the nation seceded a century and a half ago, and citizens are far from unified on any issue of importance. The republic has liberty and justice for all, a principle we sometimes have trouble implementing. And, the Pledge asserts, the republic is under God.

What does it mean to be under God? In the mind of a kindergartner, "under God" may arouse images of an old face with white hair and whiskers hanging out on a cloud smiling down on their field trip to the zoo. When the controversy sparked, the first image I had was Mary, pinned beneath the overpowering presence of God in the missionary position. When we say one person is under another in an organization we mean that she takes orders from and reports to the boss. Saying that our nation is under God is to assert that rather than a triangle of power -- executive, legislative, and judicial, we have a tetrahedron of power, with the priests at the top. This power structure was one of the main things the founding fathers wished to avoid. The Taliban, which America grew to hate overnight, was a government which took orders from and reported to the theologians.

As many people have pointed out, the word "God" is all over official American institutions -- the Declaration of Independence, the presidential oath, the money. The Declaration of Independence was written in the name of a select group of people, representing a group of people who all (or at least most) believed in a divine creator. Students don't have to profess the belief that all men were endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, they just have to learn what the document says and what role it played. George Washington added "So help me God" to the oath of office and successive presidents have freely repeated his addition. When I give someone money, I don't have to say "In God We Trust" any more than I am forced to support the principles upheld by Andrew Jackson. They're just there to distinguish the token. The government should never force people to profess allegiance, or any other statement, religious or not.

The constitutionality of "under God," added by Congress in the 1950s, shouldn't be the issue at hand. Anyone can freely utter the Pledge of Allegiance as it stands. Or choose to pledge in their own way -- perhaps to one nation, full of fairies. However, we should stop forcing schoolchildren to say the Pledge, for in so doing we render it meaningless.

Post Scripts

Flag fanaticism bewilders me. I understand the practical value of a flag, a way to tell at a distance to which faction a spotted ship, army, or fortress belongs. Sticking an American flag bumper sticker on a car should therefore be equivalent to affixing a photocopy of the driver's Social Security card. What I don't understand, though, is the people who treat it as absolutely sacred. They want flag burning to be constitutionally prohibited, but don't feel the same way about fag burning. Would it be illegal to draw seven red lines and a blue square on a sheet of paper and then set a lighter to it? Would someone face harsher homicide penalties if they immolate a person wearing a shirt with a flag insignia? It surprises me that people commanded by God to follow His word and to make no representational images would be more devoted to an abstract image representating the country than the words of the Constitution.

Many advocates of the Pledge also support posting the Ten Commandments in schoolrooms. I recall television footage of people claiming that if only Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold had been exposed to the Ten Commandments, they would have decided not to kill their schoolmates. I disagree -- staring at a plaque of demands made of a religion to which I do not belong would make me more reactionary and likely to strike out against those who wish to push their ideology on me. I can ignore the preacher on the streets, I can leave The Bible on the shelf, but I can't avoid looking at the walls of my classroom. We certainly ought to teach kids not to kill each other, but a document on the wall won't do that any more than a motivational poster makes workers more productive or a rote recited pledge makes kids allies of the flag.

Some correspondance regarding this essay: happyrpr @ said:
Ok, first off, I agree with your most recent essay, and I think it's generally pretty well written. A few things that I thought could have been improved:

1) Religion. You talk about being able to 'take or leave' the bible, and that but you don't really develop why. There's no consideration of why people believe there should be an 'under God' section in the Pledge, and you barely ellucide a number of your points... for example, how does saying 'under God' actually give priests more power than the senate, or the (democratically elected or NOT) President? Are the highest authorities of worship on earth neccesarily the high est when it comes to the administration of the country? Didn't God (supposedly) create all mankind equal? Wouldn't that make the Democrating system the most logical 'under God'?

In typical English usage (often metaphorical), "under" is equated with "inferior to," "controlled by," and so forth. For a country to be "under God" seems to imply that the nation is subservient to, less than, controlled by God.

Furthermore, Alan Watts has pointed out that democracy is a rather odd form of government for a people who believe in the ultimate controlling power of a single god. In monotheism, the people have no say about their deity or the rules. On the other hand, in ethnic Chinese religion (practiced today in Taiwan), the worldly beaurocarcy is mirroed by a heavenly beaurocracy. There's a deity who corresponds to the emperor, but there's also a deity who corresponds to each town's sherrif. And if the local deity isn't helping the town, they can vote him out of power and get a new god.

2) Kids. You haven't really told me how kids not understanding the Pledge could affect them in later life. If the Pledge isn't legally binding, what harm does it do to a kid to have to say it?

If kids don't understand what they're saying, why force them to say it? It certainly can affect kids, but exactly how varies. Some kids forced to say the pledge every day may grow resentful of nonsensical orders, the flag, etc. Others may develop an unquestioning support for the flag. You wouldn't force a kid to say "I will never refinance my mortgage" and hold her to it, so why force the pledge?

Furthermore, it's established practice to allow parents to remove their kids from school activities which they parents don't want the kids participating in. For instance, parents who don't want their kids to go through sex ed can have them do something else, for instance.
In my home state of Colorado, a law recently went into effect forcing all students to say the pledge each morning. Parents can excuse their kids on a variety of grounds. However, if you're the one foreign kid in a class and everyone else is standing up and saluting the flag while you remain seated, you'll get beat up on the playground. That's not a good way to build cross-cultural understanding.

Finally, I think the objective which must be kept in mind at all times in an education setting is "teaching why." Telling kids that 1 + 3 = 4 is essentially worthless unless they are taught /why/ that's true. Kids are forced to say the pledge without an examination of what patriotism means, what pledging means, why people might or might not want to pledge to a flag, etc.

3) Tokens. You seem to have a paradoxical view on symbols. On the one hand you believe that the Pledge, which, afterall, is purely symbolic, since it's unenforcable, should not need to be said. On the other hand, you believe that it doesn't matter that it says on coins 'In God We Trust', just because we don't speak the words. Doesn't mearly using the coins imply a tacit agreement with the words printed on then?

I'm making two separate points. Forcing it to be said by those who don't understand it *makes* it unenforcable and meaningless. I'm actually arguing that it should become meaningfull by only having it be said by choice.

Second, using money with a slogan doesn't imply agreement with the slogan any more than riding a bus implies support of the advertisement on its side, any more than a librarian must agree with the book she checks out, or even quoting a statement in a news article. I can mention the pledge and even speak every word of it, while not agreeing, if the context implies that I'm talking about the pledge (or being satirical). However, the recital of the pledge implies that the speaker means what she says. Saying "You should always buckle your seat belt" is a very different thing than driving a car that has "You should always wear your seatbelt" printed on the dashboard.