the assumption of responsibility for the welfare of the world











2002 July 4


“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.”

When the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals issued a ruling declaring the Pledge of Allegiance unconstitutional, my first reaction was nearly gleeful. That lasted for close to a minute, I think. The reality, which sapped my approximation of glee, is that this was merely a circuit court, issuing a ruling that was expected to be appealed to and overturned by the Supreme Court, and focused narrowly on the Pledge’s reference to ‘God’, and was unlikely to be zealously implemented even by the school districts under the Ninth Circuit’s jurisdiction. It was an empty moment of approximate glee, and I felt ashamed of having indulged in it.

I have a young friend who, to the discredit of the average person twice her age, is much more aware of what is going on in the world. This friend, Anna, wrote to me in the fall of her clash with the administration of the Atlanta Public Schools over her own resistance to saying the Pledge of Allegiance. The argument has been made by the government, to defend the Pledge in its current position in the schools, that no one can be or is required to say the Pledge, thanks to a 1940s Supreme Court ruling. This is false in practice, of course; Anna provides the one counterexample necessary to disprove a universal. But does any of us suppose that the government’s claim was anywhere close to being true? I actually was a patriot in my early years in the public schools, not so precocious as Anna; but I do remember school as a very authoritarian environment, and have since witnessed the school environment as an adult and found nothing different. Of course children are required to say the Pledge. If they wish to be granted their right to refrain, they must first protest to the teacher, then to the principal, then seek the help of their parents, who must seek the help of a lawyer, who must threaten (implicitly or explicitly) to sue the school corporation to uphold this supposed right, if not actually sue. Country of laws? I think not.

And the circuit-court ruling on the Pledge was quite limited. It found only that the Pledge was unconstitutional in the classroom because it mentioned God and amounted to an establishment of religion. True; but as I wrote to Anna when she told me of her fight for liberty in the schools, there are numerous things wrong with the Pledge of Allegiance:

1. It is a pledge, which is to say a promise. Promises are built on expectations of future events. In making a promise, I am saying that I will do a certain thing, regardless of what happens in the future. But we can see from nearly-infinite examples that people will often change their minds, and often break their promises, because of the changing situations they find themselves in. Of course, some will change their minds for no reason, but for most it is because they did not realize they would feel differently in the future, because they could not accurately predict what would happen. None of us can reliably predict the future. Why, then, do we constantly suggest that we can? Why do we promise others that we will react a certain way?

2. It is a pledge of allegiance, or loyalty. A government agency (the school) is requiring a child to take a loyalty oath as a condition of education. That would seem normal in a fascist country, but it is hardly appropriate in the liberal democracy we purport to be.

3. It is a pledge of allegiance to a flag. I cannot speak for others, but my allegiance is to the truth, and then to stewardship and justice, and finally to the individuals that I care about. I feel no loyalty to a piece of colored fabric. In fact, the idea is preposterous, absurd, unbelievably ridiculous.

4. It is also a pledge of allegiance to the republic, which is to say the government. This government has certainly not earned my loyalty. It has done some positive things, but also many, many unjust things, and it should be given the respect its actions deserve. When it is doing good, I will support it. But I will not promise to support it under all circumstances, because I know from history that it will do many things I disagree with.

5. It refers to a nation under God. Not all of us believe in God, nor did I think the government was supposed to establish a religion. Here, and only here, and only for the moment, an appeals court has agreed.

6. It refers to a nation indivisible. Not only is that historically inaccurate (as shown by the Civil War), it is also inaccurate with regards to the present, and probably the future as well. There are many reasons why some in this country would want to divide it, to separate from it. And given the nation’s past actions, some of those reasons are quite justified.

7. It refers to liberty and justice for all. This country has never provided such a sweeping good as liberty and justice for all. Perhaps some day it will, but I will wait until that happens before I start giving the government credit for it.

So basically from start to finish the Pledge is an absurdity and, for some who might be asked to say it, a lie. And teachers, school administrators, and society at large are, in fact, compelling children to repeat it.

Those of us who are not religious are well aware, though, that the government’s endorsement of theism, and Judeo-Christian theism in particular, is not confined to the Pledge. Prayers and invocations still take place at commencement ceremonies and sporting events in public schools, courtrooms still post the Ten Commandments, oaths still invoke God and employ the Bible, the currency mentions the deity, and the Congress itself, which is most specifically forbidden to establish a religion by the Constitution, has a chaplain and opens every day with a prayer. And religious holidays are celebrated with displays at government buildings and with parties in the schools; and now tax money has been cleared to support religious education. The non-believer cannot escape the government’s relentless promotion of religion, and the First Amendment, if it means anything, means only that the government will not promote one sect of Christianity over another, which is probably what its Christian authors intended it to mean.

But the Bill of Rights is nonetheless a remarkable piece of legislation, and while its interpretation has thankfully extended past the framers’ intent, some of the framers’ radical intent has been forgotten. The framers were freshly emerged from the process of overthrowing their government; and the Bill of Rights was in large part constructed to give them the ability to do so again. The right to keep and bear arms, which most liberals foolishly scorn, was not about giving hunters the right to shoot animals, nor landowners the right to shoot trespassers, which are the two uses most commonly cited today in the Second Amendment’s defense. The right to keep and bear arms was designed to give ordinary citizens the ability to shoot soldiers of their own army, should it ever become the instrument of a tyrannical government; and such a right was of course meant as a deterrent to the establishment of a tyrannical government in the first place. And the rest of the amendments are primarily checks on the technical power of the government, to protect individual citizens from its potential.

The First Amendment, while having the same effect, was more a restriction on society as a whole, rather than merely the government. The First Amendment deals with those things that ordinary citizens are most likely to think of imposing on their neighbors, government oppressions that emanate from the oppressive impulses of society as a whole, things like religious conformity. The ordinary citizen does not generally think of biased judicial proceedings, for example; but he does often think of telling his neighbor to shut up, when he disagrees with what she is saying. In fact, the Bill of Rights is about dissent, and the First Amendment is about the very fundamentals of dissent, the things most apparent in everyday life. Are we allowed to disagree with society? Are we allowed to express our disagreement? Are we allowed to be different?

The traditional answer in society is, no. To the extent that our society differs from those that preceded it, from those it supplanted, it can only be that, having been established through dissent, it was prepared to tolerate dissent. But perhaps our society is no different. Certainly our citizens have historically shown themselves no better than the rest of the world in the ability to accept differences. And it is only, ironically, conservatism that has saved us, for the element of society that is most strongly in favor of traditional values and the preservation of national identity is faced with an established order that, on its face, protects dissent.

A good friend of mine is a historian, a liberal political activist, and a patriot. He explains his patriotism with reference to the origin of the United States, and the enormous potential of a society founded in revolution and organized around freedom and the right to dissent. He knows better than I the truths of our history, including all of the injustices and hypocrisies, but he still finds reason to hope about the country. And if I were convinced that the citizens of this country did now or might ever view the essence of their collective citizenship as a set of ideals on liberty and justice, I might share his enthusiasm. Partially, of course, the attention that he and others pay to the United States is based on familiarity and practicality, and that is sensible. But it requires a sense of optimism that past and current actions do not engender in me.

As evidence, even the fairly-liberal Tom Daschle chose to characterize the Ninth Circuit’s decision as “nuts”, and his Senate voted 99-0 to, if I understand correctly, scold the court for its decision. This sounds very much like the liberal members of Congress who routinely vote for bills against flag-burning, knowing that the bills will be held unconstitutional, because these members of Congress want to be seen to be doing something, and yet know that amending the Constitution would mark them in history as having hedged on the First Amendment. It is a choice between the sacrifice of sanctities. Ironies upon ironies, ad nauseam.

And the brave individuals serving in our armed forces will frequently say that they are fighting, and dying, for the flag. They may also say that they are fighting and dying for freedom, but as they do so the freedoms the flag is taken to represent are discarded without consideration. So perhaps it is simpler for all good patriots to pledge their allegiance to the flag. In the end, that is all they will have.



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