Pledge of Allegiance pushes a nationalist agenda

Bella Gustafson, Editor-in-Chief

Every morning millions of students across the nation pledge their devotion to the United States in a mandated recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance. Although not federal law, 47 states require the Pledge to be recited with varying allowances for non-participation, often only with written parent permission.

The Pledge itself has an endless list of issues. The purpose behind its writing was as a way to celebrate the 400-year anniversary of slaveholder Christopher Columbus “discovering” America (his having landed in the Bahamas without ever coming near North America being unimportant). Its author, Francis Bellamy, was a strong supporter of eugenics, his nativist sentiments reflected in his aspirations for the oath as a way to ensure the flood of immigrants were truly dedicated to their new country. To truly embrace this nativist sentiment “to the flag” was amended to be “to the flag of the United States” as a way to ensure immigrants were saluting the “right” flag.

Defenders of the Pledge do so on the grounds of honoring the millions of soldiers who have fought—and, in many cases, died—to protect the rights and independence of Americans. This is fair reasoning, though whether it’s enough to excuse problematic origins is debatable. In any case, the meaning of the Pledge isn’t its only issue–it could be rewritten with a more inclusive, veteran-honoring message by someone of less dubious beliefs and it would still be an issue because it’s mandated.

Laws requiring the Pledge be recited in schools specify grades K-12. “K” as in “Kindergarten” as in kids far too young to understand what it means to be a citizen of a country or what the history of that country is or even what the words they are saying–words like “indivisible” and “allegiance”–even mean. Before children have the opportunity, even capability, to learn and form opinions on complex, abstract concepts the government is asking (requiring) they affirm their loyalty to a nation they only have a partial understanding of. This is social conditioning, training children to believe and support a nationalistic, glorified view of the United States.

In the 1942 Supreme Court case Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette Justice Robert Houghwout Jackson stated:

“the First Amendment cannot enforce a unanimity of opinion on any topic, and national symbols like the flag should not receive a level of deference that trumps constitutional protections.”

Not only should this apply to the Pledge, it did apply; the case was about whether students could abstain from saying the Pledge (on religious grounds, as in this case, or otherwise). Simple logic would assume that this ruling would overrule laws mandating the Pledge be recited, yet they still exist. Is forcing a sanitized view of the nation not “unanimity of opinion on any topic”? Something, by the ruling of the Supreme Court, cannot be enforced because it violates the First Amendment.

At the heart of these laws is nationalism. Not the feeling of patriotism, of love and appreciation for the culture and people of one’s nation, but nationalism, the philosophy that has excused violent imperialism and moral violations. In theory nationalism can be good, author Joseph Pearce explains,

“A good nationalist rejoices in the good nationalism of other nations. He doesn’t want his country to conquer other countries, any more than he wishes his country to be conquered. A good nationalist is never an imperialist because an imperialist is an internationalist.”

But far too often this line between a nationalist and an internationalist is crossed, allowing offenses like US control of Cuba or annexation of the Philippines. The lack of distinction between nationalism and imperialism makes the former far too risky to support, something that should be avoided and not sought after. And yet this is what the Pledge does, it seeks to instill nationalistic views with no regard to the implications it can have.

On its own the Pledge is worth being skeptical of, but when it’s required by the government perhaps complete avoidance is best. While it’s understandable to encourage the Pledge on days or during events which honor the fight for democracy, past and present it’s everyday presence in the classroom is unwarranted. An end to the daily Pledge in schools would be optimal, but at very least the history, purpose, and implications of the Pledge must be taught before students are led to mindlessly recite it.