I Don't Pledge Allegiance, To the Flag

I guess I’m not patriotic. That’s what I assume, at least, when I find myself on my usual side of a controversy like the one that erupted recently when a school note involving the pledge of allegiance went viral.

The note was a waiver, sent home to be signed in case the parent/guardian wanted to opt their child out of reciting the pledge. On the paper, a disgruntled mother expressed her disgruntledness, while her brother-in-law, the child’s uncle, snapped a pic and shared it. The rest is news feed history.

The actions of the adults, and the thousands of comments found under internet shares of this story, point to a visceral anger that something is wrong with this country when nationalist traditions like the pledge are questioned. Those who don’t feel this way are deemed “unpatriotic.”

I am one of those who feel completely baffled and out of step with the vitriol. But I’m used to feeling out of step with current American sympathies. I’m a socialist. You know, the devil.

Any time I question our national obsession with capitalism, or our quickness to war, our sense of lofty superiority and international supremacy, or our constant failure of memory and imagination when it comes to our social ills, I’m immediately aware of who disagrees with me. Definitely those on the political right (Republicans, libertarians, alt-right, etc.), and often Democrats don’t like what certain folks on the far left have to say regarding the policies of our country (as well as the morality and ideology behind them). So I’m not surprised when something comes along that upsets large parts of the public but doesn’t bother me (and vice versa).

Still, this pledge thing bothers me; not because kids can opt out, but because it’s still being said at all. From a civics perspective, the pledge strikes me as both socially irresponsible given our global reality and naively jingoistic.

The problem with our culture's tendency to separate every issue into easy dualism (writ large as the two party political system) is that we're often quick to do away with nuance in favor of the snappiest soundbite. In this case, when someone says they don't like the pledge, it's the natural step for an opponent to say "well then you must not like America."

Which in my case is and isn't true. I guess we need some nuance.

The Pledge as Bad Policy

"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."

Though the pledge has gone through several iterations since its first, mostly permanent revision in 1892, this is the current one, last updated in 1954 to capitalize "Nation" and add "under God."

When it comes to the pledge, what we're talking about is a fealty oath, a demand by the State fulfilled by its subjects. The pledge requires loyalty, and unquestioning relationship to the flag and the specific form of government that it represents. The pledge doesn't beg our allegiance for "the best possible version of our Republic" or to "the basic precepts at the foundation of our Republic" but to the Republic itself. This, whether intentionally or not, makes the pledge a nationalist tool for keeping subjects in line whether the Republic is what it should be or not. The Republic is as it stands, and you're to pledge allegiance to it.

Hopefully it's obvious why such unquestioning nationalism is seriously problematic. When such beliefs have historically emerged as governmental structures, they haven't had the best track records. We don't often speak kindly of fascists, after all (except to cheekily note that they're good at getting trains to places on time).

This jingoistic turn is what separates the practices of saying the pledge from being or feeling patriotic. Patriotism, in its ideal sense, allows for careful and heavy criticism. You can love a place, feel a sense of ownership to it and pride in what it can be, and still be completely honest and aware of its failings. As noted above, the pledge doesn't allow for the kind of free thought, debate, or imagination that a healthy patriotism necessitates. Therefore, equating the pledge and patriotism just doesn't play.

The problem only grows larger when we consider how the conflation of the two has resulted in a terribly rigid sense of what it means to be an American citizen. The inflexibility, combined with the misunderstanding (or even willful ignorance), is what makes the dedication to the pledge dangerous to actual individual and social freedoms.

Justice Robert H. Jackson, writing for the 1943 Supreme Court majority decision[1] to overturn a previous ruling which allowed students to be compelled to say the pledge in school[2], railed against the ideological orthodoxy which would force any American into a prescribed behavior at the expense of other more important, though less tangential, ideals. He wrote,

"If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion, or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein. If there are any circumstances which permit an exception, they do not now occur to us."

Prescribed orthodoxy is what makes the pledge a terrible idea in the first place. No formulaic, performative act can distinguish one citizen of a free republic from another—which is why the willingness to say the Pledge is a terrible assessment for political belonging. More than that, this is why it's antithetically American to support the pledge as that which defines loyalty. And if the pledge can't and shouldn't define loyalty, why have it?

The pledge is a false litmus for "true Americanism." This makes it problematic for all citizens over which it holds sway (which is to say all of us).

Unfortunately, the problems with the pledge continue, deeper and deeper down for religious persons. The show of parroted patriotism that is the pledge is one of special import to Christians[3]. Because not only is a pledge of allegiance politically troublesome, it’s idolatrous.

The Pledge as Idolatry

When God sent Moses down from the mountain with a list of commandments, the first two are, roughly, "I am God" and "thusly, no worshipping some other god." For those keeping with the Judeo-Christian heritage, it still stands as an instruction not to worship that which is not God.

Unfortunately for nationalism, this provides a distraction from the necessary worship of the nation. It also doesn't make capitalism too happy, as capitalism demands the primacy of currency, with people and their innate createdness being secondary to their role as money-makers then money-spenders.

Benjamin E. Zeller used the recent Colin Kaepernick[4] controversy to discuss Émile Durkheim's model of religion with the totem as the center. Our Americanism, our sense of civic religion, then, is centered on the flag, the "symbolic referent point for the nation’s self-worship." This symbol is given explicit power via the pledge. The flag is the symbol of the national god to be worshipped, the pledge its scripture, the national anthem its hymn.

Christianity gains its power from being a witness to the truth that Christ stands against the death dealt by national power in favor of the life offered by God. Peace and community are the eternal way, truth, and life. Rome will always only be the cross and the sealed tomb.

The Christian, therefore, cannot both accept the primacy of Christ and that of the state. The pledge is an acknowledgment of servitude above and beyond all else. Reciting it is, then, idolatry to the Christ follower.

This isn't a new concept, as the first Supreme Court challenge to the mandatory recitation of the pledge stemmed from Jehovah's Witnesses children refusing to say the pledge in school in 1935. Yet despite its age, the controversy is still fresh. It's so fresh that stories of people sitting during national anthems, or refusing to say the pledge, or politicians advocating fierce returns to Americanism continue to be front-page news.

The worship of the flag and the Republic for which it stands is at a fever pitch. There is no sector of American life untouched by the call to worship the Americanness of all things. Entreaties to "make America great again," to say the pledge without question, and to sing the national anthem with sacred reverence all require modern Christians to declare dual allegiances, using frighteningly similar religious and civic liturgies to do so.

The pledge is such liturgy. It simultaneously claims to be a marker of truth and of identity couched within truth. It demands that the flag be both witnessed and the cause of witness. This demand places the flag, for those who pledge allegiance to it, at the right hand of the empire which flies it. All of which makes unflinching nationalistic dedication hard to square when you also claim to worship a carpenter who said caring for the poor and sick, who said loving for God and neighbor, matters more than a flag and the Republic for which it stands ever will.


[1]: It should be noted that this ruling is what makes it ridiculous that a school or teacher need to send home a note to give permission for a child to opt out and not say the pledge. While it's helpful that the note gives parents and children an awareness of their rights, it's unfortunate that it's needed. They don't have to say it now, no opting out necessary. Thanks to a later ruling from the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, children under its jursidiction (Alabama, Georgia, and Florida) don't have to stand for it either. (According to Snopes, the school in question sent the notice home in compliance with Florida law, which requires children know their right to refrain from saying the pledge and requires parents know they can excuse their child from saying it. Even though a teacher can't compel them to say it in the first place.)

[2]: Not only is this in keeping with the right to dissent protected by the First Amendment, it's pedagogically sound when teaching children anything as belief-based and intellectually complex as allegiance. Young children aren't fully capable of understanding what allegiances are, and we shouldn't be asking them to swear to anything based on the assumption that they'll support a specific brand of nationalist ideology in the future (which keeps with the sound method to "never teach a child anything you'll have to unteach them later"). To do so is to support indoctrination, something easily accomplished with young, impressionable minds. The Hitler Youth program was successful for a reason.

[3]: I absolutely do not mean to imply that "religious persons" and "Christians" are to be conflated here or in any context, nor do I intend to imply that the pledge is only religiously problematic for Christians. It's just that my context is Christian, and I can't speak for my Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist, etc. brothers and sisters. But I'd like to think that any of those who feel the divine life trumps the life of empire would agree with what follows.

[4]: That this controversy has emerged from the world of American sport adds a layer, as the idolatry of the American state has intertwined with the idolatry by Americans of professional sport, particularly American football. The worship of both ride waves of liturgy, each with their own means of consecrating that which is most holy: the flag, the game. In recent years, the worship of these two pillars of Americanism have merged into codependent parts. Tom Suttle notes exactly this in his excellent recent piece.

Obama, Jesus and 57,000 Immigrants Walk into a Bar

I've written before about the dangers of trying to have a discussion via social media (spoilers: it's terrible), but I continue to do it. I'm an idiot, though, so I forgive me.

Recently a friend posted the Facebook status referencing the humanitarian crisis on the U.S. southern border in which thousands of foreign minors are fleeing their homes in Central and South America and attempting to gain refugee status here. He wrote, "Jesus wouldn't deport 52,000 children." To which Logan responded "No. I mean...he wouldn't. But he also wasn't a head of state." This led to Logan and I having a lengthy offline discussion about what the original thought implied and what our reactions were to it and why they were so immediate.

It's important to look at what's going on when we talk about what the government is doing or should be doing and what Jesus said we should be doing in the same breath. On a historical level, it gets murky when we try to grant Jesus political authority. There was a separation and a tension for him (the "give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar" thing[^1]), so outright conflation of the two doesn't sit well.

This doesn't mean, of course, that what Jesus was all about had no political implications. The social and economic status quo is very much the business of the government and has been since the invention of the concept of governmental authority. But that's where the crux of my reaction to the statement lies: Jesus was about something so much more than government business.

For the record, I don't believe deporting those kids will do one damn bit of good. Maybe it'll discourage others from seeking asylum here[^2], to make the dangerous journey that might cost their lives, but if the crisis at home is bad enough, those deported back will just leave again. I also believe that it is morally necessary to care for them while they are here, to do as much as we can to help them begin a life here, and to also make the life in their home countries good enough that they don't feel the need to flee in the first place.[^3]

The flip side to all this, and what I think my friend was going for when he wrote what he did, is that such an invocation is usually the tool of the Christian Right in this country. In that sense, he was turning it back on those who commonly use Jesus as a way to justify political and social action, often for causes that look and sound very un-Jesus-like. However, this tension between what Jesus was all about and how governments operate doesn't really let the technique work for liberals, either. No matter which side uses the lingo, problems arise.

That being said, if we're going to think through an issue that holds government action and religious conviction in conversation, we have to think about how much the two have to do with each other and how action in one sphere might affect the other. For my friend, the issue came down to how we begin to focus our responsibility to those children in great need and what our top representative's response should look like given that responsibility. To which I replied, in part:

If by "our responsibility" you mean the responsibility of the federal government, its representatives, and the people who elected them, then no. It's not "our" responsibility. Obama's responsibility is constitutional, to do what he can for our national interests while following federal law. If he does more, it's above and beyond the actual responsibility of the position.

If by "our" you mean Christians, which I assume you do by invoking Jesus, then yes, it is our responsibility. However, as much as fundamentalists want it, we're not a Christian nation and our president, of all people, shouldn't be acting based on one set of religious virtues. This doesn't mean he can't act morally within the grounds of his public office, but it also means that he can't base such action on what Jesus wants.[^4]

Essentially, we can't expect Obama or any other politician to abide by WWJD bracelets. Nor should we. Government will do what government does, especially in this country where we at least claim to stake some identity (I'm sighing as I type this because it's ridiculous to keep saying it given current American politics) on the separation of church and state. That leaves those with a religious responsibility to respond in their own way.

"What does that look like?"[^5] is the million-dollar question. A lot of things, actually. Electing representatives that favor domestic and foreign policies that speak to the tenets of your religious beliefs (and if you're a Jesus follower, I sure hope you're thinking first about major social and economic reform and not gay marriage or birth control) is a place to start. Giving your financial resources to trustworthy groups that seek those same goals is another quick way to jump in. But most importantly, giving of yourself, your time and body, is the best way we can demonstrate commitment to our responsibilities. If you truly believe we have a commitment to those children, to the humanitarian struggle they're facing at home and here on our soil, then how are you actively, physically planning to help them?

Am I helping them? Have I taken a leave of absence from my job to go down there and touch those in need with my hands and tell them they are loved and show them that someone cares? No. But I'm a bad Christian. It's important to know these things. I've known I'm a bad Christian for a while, actually, since I have a house full of stuff and a car and money in savings and I'm planning for retirement. Jesus said something about selling what you have, giving the proceeds to the poor, and then following him.[^6] I haven't done that. Most Christians haven't. But we can try to do better. We can think on how we failed the least of these, breathe in and out a few times, and then try to do better. We can then do our best to help those in need all around us. We can even ask Obama to do the same thing. Just don't get mad when he allocates funds to speed up the deportation process because you think Jesus wouldn't have done that. Jesus wouldn't have agreed to be commander-in-chief, either.

  • [^1]: Mark 12:17
  • [^2]: Though if they did, the Bible has something to say about that, too. Check out Leviticus 19:33-34. That's in the chapter before the one certain folks like to wield.
  • [^3]: We're up against some decades-old Reagan-era policies toward Central and South America here which, frankly, haven't gotten much better with presidents since. This one's a toughy.
  • [^4]: Feel free to substitute another moral/religious system in place of Christian here. I'm arguing from a Christian perspective because that's a) where most of my experience lies and b) where the discussion started.
  • [^5]: It sure as hell doesn't look like this.
  • [^6]: Matthew 19:21