Are you a bad American if you refuse to recite the Pledge of Allegiance? Are you a bad parent if you encourage your child to opt out of the Pledge in school?
Not at all. In fact, sitting out the Pledge of Allegiance, and encouraging your children to do so as well, can be seen as an affirmation of certain important values that are sadly lacking in modern America. One could even argue that sitting out the Pledge is itself a noble act of patriotism – or, at least, that those who opt out are by no means any less patriotic than those who participate. (Note: the right to refuse participation in the Pledge has been guaranteed by the United States Supreme Court.)
It would be a mistake to assume that the Pledge of Allegiance is an exercise that somehow unites all good citizens. Most Americans – liberal, moderate, or conservative – are decent and loyal citizens who appreciate at some level the nation's core values: freedom, equal rights, democracy, and the fundamental principles embedded in the Constitution. They may often disagree about how to define and apply those values, but that’s simply the nature of a pluralistic, open society. With such a diverse population and a wide range of viewpoints, it shouldn't be surprising that many see little value in a pledge exercise.
At a minimum, parents should talk with their kids about the Pledge – about what it means, what it doesn’t mean, and even its history. For starters, kids should understand that the exercise is voluntary, because many schools don't inform them of this. And whether individual children decide to participate or not, all kids should understand that nonparticipation is not unpatriotic or disrespectful in any way. On the reverse side of the same coin, it's worth pointing out that participation doesn't make one a patriot.
In fact, serious participation in the exercise might require a child to make affirmations that run contrary to a child's core personal beliefs or matters of conscience – and this of course could be unhealthy and problematic. Some families may not believe that the nation is "under God," for example, whereas others may not feel that we truly provide "liberty and justice for all." Others may simply have objections to pledging to anything. Families grappling with such issues are still part of the fabric of the nation, and they should be appreciated and supported, not criticized.
For any humanist family, and for many others as well, there are numerous issues relating to the Pledge that are worth discussing. A few of them would include:
The Loyalty Oath Problem. No matter how much you love your country, you could question the wisdom of any recitation that essentially amounts to a loyalty oath. To be good citizens, must we visibly and publicly pledge our allegiance? And must even children do so – on a daily basis? It’s interesting that the Founding Fathers never felt it desirable to promote such loyalty recitations from citizens. (In fact, the Pledge wasn’t even written until 1892, a full century after the founding era.) The framers, as men of reason with Enlightenment values, most likely would have been aghast at the idea of citizens being expected to regularly recite a loyalty pledge.
Promoting Nationalism. We can love our country while still being skeptical of nationalism. We can agree that America is a marvelous place, from sea to shining sea, and that the principles upon which it was founded are worthy of exaltation – but that doesn’t mean we should constantly encourage widespread feelings of nationalism. History shows that national pride (in America and elsewhere) can be overdone, that it can lead to militarism and a diminished appreciation of outsiders. Nationalism can be seen as a manifestation of the human tendency toward tribalism, and such "we-are-so-great" thinking is hardly an impulse that should be encouraged. Beyond our borders are fellow human beings whose worth and dignity should not be disregarded. As such, maybe we shouldn't instill our children with a daily dose of national superiority.
Racist and sexist roots. Liberty and justice are fine values, but they are hardly a comprehensive statement of important American values. When Francis Bellamy, a socialist, originally wrote the Pledge in 1892, he considered including the values of equality and fraternity in the recitation, but he was discouraged from doing so. It seems that too many Americans – particularly those in leadership positions – were opposed to equality for women and African Americans, so inclusion of those values would have been too controversial. Thus, by excluding those values, the Pledge as it appears today reflects not-so-subtle invidious attitudes of racism and sexism – reason enough to pass on participating in it.
The ‘Under God’ Problem. Many Americans don’t even know that the “under God” wording was added to the Pledge in 1954, during the McCarthy era. Interestingly, in a survey released this week by the American Humanist Association, when Americans are informed about this history over one-third support removal of the words and a return to "one nation, individible." Obviously, a statement that the nation is “under God” is contrary to the sincerely held beliefs of atheists, humanists, and other religious skeptics. That didn’t bother the Knights of Columbus and other religious groups that lobbied for inclusion of the phrase, but it obviously bothers many nonbelievers The survey showed over 90 percent of atheists oppose the affirmation, as do more than one in five believers. As the Pledge currently reads, it defines patriotism by drawing a circle that excludes millions of atheists and humanists who of course are perfectly good citizens. That alone is reason for many to opt out.
The Rote Recitation Problem. In an age where critical thinking is hardly a widespread phenomenon, it’s hard to see how the act of reciting any pledge in unison with a large group does much good. Even if the Pledge of Allegiance were a perfect statement of national values – which it is not – it certainly isn’t a reflection of independent thinking. Group activities can indeed sometimes have value in an educational environment (reciting the alphabet, for example, or singing songs). But they are usually done for a short time – a few days, or perhaps a few weeks – until the lesson or the song is fully learned and appreciated, and then the class moves on to something else. However, a daily recitation of a pledge of national loyalty, for 13 years, is an indoctrination, not an education.
A Declaration of Independence. Just as participation in the Pledge exercise discourages independent thinking, nonparticipation is an act of independence. The nonparticipating student is making a statement of sorts – not a statement of disloyalty, but a statement that tells others that he/she will not be herded and given words to recite. The intelligent, independent thinker knows what her values are – and certainly does not need a daily government-sponsored exercise to define them or instill them.
These are some of the reasons that good, decent Americans are sitting out the Pledge of Allegiance. Critics of nonparticipation might object, and they might even accuse nonparticipants of disloyalty. The late Sen. Joseph McCarthy, famous for witch hunts that, not coincidentally, were occurring as the Knights of Columbus was lobbying for insering "under God" into the Pledge in the early 1950s, would have called such nonparticipants disloyal and subversive. This, however, would prove my point. If those claiming to be the “real” patriots can accuse nonparticipants of disloyalty merely for opting out of a recitation, we have forgotten the meaning of patriotism. If anything, such accusations should encourage even more critical thinkers to opt out.
Humanists know that recitation of words does not make a patriot, nor does waiving a flag or putting a yellow magnet on one’s car. If you want to be a good American, talk is cheap – but there's nothing unpatriotic about critical thinking and personal independence.
David Niose's latest book is Fighting Back the Right: Reclaiming America from the Attack on Reason