Should we “pledge allegiance to the Flag?”

Image made by Siona Lewis-Coffey
Image made by Siona Lewis-Coffey

“I pledge allegiance to the Flag of the United States of America, and to the Republic for which it stands, one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” Words we all likely know by heart. But why? Should we? This 130-year-old sentence has been a familiar component in schools around our country, but the phrase has had significant issues since its origin. Believed to be written in the 1890s by Francis Bellamy, a privileged white Christian socialist, the pledge has always been disconnected from the reality of many citizens. With today’s backdrop of declining patriotism and growing criticisms of our country’s unjust institutions, the pledge seems to symbolize the kind of idealist nationalism that grants these systems their power.


To start, it’s important to understand exactly what the pledge is saying. First off, it proclaims that our country is “one nation under God”. The use of “God” was added by Eisenhower in the 1950s during the Red Scare, a period of anti-Communist frenzy. He declared that this change would “strengthen those spiritual weapons which forever will be our country’s most powerful resource in peace and war”. The most obvious issue with this phrase is that it is irrelevant for today’s approximately 1 in 5 Americans who don’t believe in a “God”. At the time the pledge was written, about 98% of Americans believed in God, but regardless, there were still some who did not connect with it. This is just one demonstration of how out of touch the oath is with its citizens: it does not adapt as our collective identity changes. The inclusion of this phrase may even be against the First Amendment, as the pledge is required to be read aloud to students by law in some states. Although the students are not required to say the pledge themselves, this appears to be in defiance of the amendment’s declaration that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion”. This discrepancy has proven relevant for Jehovah’s Witnesses, who can only worship God, making worshiping our nation through the pledge against their religion. In 1943, this issue was brought to the Supreme Court in the trial West Virginia v. Barnette. This case concerned students who were Jehovah’s witnesses refusing to say the pledge, when at the time the law had the power to enforce participation. The judge ruled in favor of the students, declaring “we apply the limitations of the Constitution with no fear that freedom to be … diverse … will disintegrate the social organization.” That court case established a precedent that still exists today: no one shall be forced to recite the pledge. However, this only stopped the requirement of reciting the oath, but did not affect the mention of “God”.


Next, the promise of “liberty and justice for all” has remained blatantly unfulfilled. Since its founding, our country has been based on inequality. A prime example is the statement “all men are created equal” in the Constitution, which explicitly excluded 50% of the population and implicitly disregarded people of color and poor people. BIPOC, women, LGBTQ+ people, and many other marginalized groups have been and still are oppressed by our unjust government. Instilling young, impressionable students with a phrase that ignores these issues only encourages people to have blind faith in our government. This trust could be the destruction of our country if we aren’t careful. Without recognizing the presence of these issues, we’re helpless to their consequences. On the national scale, this means suppression of voices, violence, unequal education, lack of equitable access to resources, and overall oppression of minorities. These are all things which have been part of our country for as long as it has existed, and can only be stopped through conscious, dedicated work. We can begin to prevent these injustices if we stop listening to an outdated oath and start listening to the people who are affected by these systems.


Within our school community, the pledge often goes unrecited, if not simply ignored or talked over by students and staff. The last time I stood up and recited the pledge was the first week of freshman year when none of us yet knew that we didn’t have to. When interviewing students I found that many didn’t say the pledge, or if they did, did so more out of routine or for no particular reason rather than as a display of patriotism. I talked to Colby Doong, a freshman, who said, “I mean, I kinda like murmur it,” saying that he recites it “Because [he sees] other people saying it.” Debjoti Karmaker, a senior, said “It’s just like a habit. I mean, we’ve been doing it since elementary school, why not?” Caroline Gearrity, a junior, added “It just felt like a bunch of words that you’re supposed to say, and no one really tells you what it means.” At our school, it seems that most people do not associate strongly with the words of the pledge, but it doesn’t seem like there’s an accessible way to change that. As students, shouldn’t we have a say in what patriotism looks like in our spaces? Well, as it is now, the law doesn’t seem to believe so…


The daily announcement of the pledge is required by law in public schools in 47 states (those excluded being Wyoming, Vermont, and Hawai’i). Of these, 12 require that students stand and recite it, with no specified exceptions or strict ones for those who wish not to participate. The laws surrounding these rules seem severely outdated and deeply steeped in tradition. For example, in New Jersey, students who do not recite the pledge must “[stand] at attention, the boys removing the headdress.” And in Kentucky “Pupils shall be reminded that this Lord’s prayer is the prayer our pilgrim fathers recited.” These rules are clearly not updated for modern times, so why do they continue to exist as active elements of American law?


In our home of New York City, the pledge has been recited in public schools since 2001, about a month after 9/11. In the wake of this horrific event, patriotism surged as a display of respect for the lives lost. One year after the attacks, 62% of Americans said they felt more patriotic, and around this time, 79% of adults recorded displaying an American flag. Before 9/11, the pledge had been officially required by law in schools but largely ignored since the 1970s. This renewed sense of patriotism turned sour, though, as it became a source of xenophobia and islamophobia against Middle Eastern and Muslim people. Within a month after the attacks, 28% of adults said they were warier of Middle Eastern people, which increased to 36% a year later. The effects of this are still felt prominently today. In 2017, 48% of Muslim adults reported experiencing religious discrimination in the previous year, in the form of suspiciousness or verbal and physical threats. These events stand as a warning of what patriotism has the potential to create. The more we establish our unity, the easier it becomes for our “we” to turn against the resulting “them”, a trap that classic American patriotism has proved very susceptible to. 


In the wake of these events, we must question how much of a role idealist patriotism should have in American society today, especially in schools. Although it makes sense that citizens of a country would feel a sense of pride for their nation, does this have to include utopian imagery that has the potential to transform into a source of hate or a harmful optimism? The Pledge of Allegiance is a damaging, obsolete symbol of what we must combat in order to progress as a nation. And many students are already fighting. In 2022, Melissa Barnwell, a high school student, refused to recite the Pledge of Allegiance in protest of America’s unjust treatment of Black Americans. The pledge’s claim that America is a country “with liberty and justice for all” is simply untrue, today as much as at the time it was written. She was physically and verbally reprimanded by her teacher, and her family is now suing her school’s district for violating the First Amendment. As students, we should strive to be more critical participants in our country’s functions, and advocate for change when parts of its structure seem irrelevant and detrimental to our current society. 

I believe there is no place for the Pledge of Allegiance as a daily ritual for students. Choosing to protest the pledge is a more significant display of devotion that better exemplifies a key value our country is based on: the right of the public to make their voices heard in the government. This act represents an interest in bettering the country, recognizing its faults, and believing that we, as its citizens, can address these problems. I believe that patriotism can be a powerful tool to help repair our fundamentally flawed institutions, but only if we strip it of the hateful messages it’s often associated with. We should redefine it as a more critical type of appreciation for our nation. Not loving our country unconditionally — because every system has potential for development — but showing interest and concern in its functions. Only with that engagement can we make changes that will produce a more fair and equitable society. If our pledge was altered to be more constructive, instead of idealistic, I think it would serve as a much more reflective depiction of us, as its citizens, and our values.

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