From curiosity-riddled kindergartners to high school students longing to break free of the shackles of their mandatory school years, Americans of school age spend the first part of every morning with their hands over their hearts, reciting an oath to their nation: “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.” While the idea of promoting patriotism and nationalism — and furthermore instilling nationalist concepts at a young age — may not seem detrimental to the American social construct, criticisms repeatedly arise in regards to the legitimacy of propagating blind allegiance to the United States. Various groups have declared war — at least in part — on the Pledge of Allegiance for various reasons, especially when the issue of mandatory proclamation enters the conversation, meaning the enforcement of mandatory recitation of the oath. For all of the denigration lobbied at the Pledge of Allegiance, three distinct arguments strongly summarize the dissent: the language of the Pledge of Allegiance violates the First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States, the nature of the Pledge of Allegiance presents ethical conflict, and the Pledge of Allegiance, as an institution, exemplifies tenants of radical nationalism and Fascist idolatry.
First Amendment violations represent one of the most common disputes toward the Pledge of Allegiance, particularly with the phrase “Under God” as one of the heavily criticized. The oath many Americans take every morning personifies governmental endorsement of religion, with an obvious oath to “God” contained in the words. Reinforcement of this criticism came in 2002, when the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled in Newdow v. United States Congress the phrase “under God” to be a violation of the Establishment Clause in the First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States (Newdow 2002). Furthermore, the inclusion of “under God” only came in 1954, with an amendment to Section 4 of the Flag Code, when, as John E. Thompson, J.D., a graduate of Harvard Law School, transcribed in the Harvard Civil Rights-Civil Liberties Law Review, the amendment’s congressional sponsors said the amendment’s “purpose was to distinguish America from atheistic communism, affirm the nation as a religious one, and infuse children with the belief that the United States is under God.” Congress clearly and maliciously violated the Establishment Clause by enacting this measure, since amendments to the Flag Code must be approved by Congress and the Establishment Clause explicitly reads: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion…”
There exist men and women who defend the phrase “under God” with the passion of television Evangelists. One of the most prominent, the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, defends the phrasing on grounds that the phrase “communicates timeless American values.” When the Supreme Court of the United States reviewed the Ninth Circuit’s decision in Newdow v. United States Congress, the Becket Fund considered the justice’s decision a victory for religious liberty, despite the Supreme Court overturning the Ninth Circuit’s ruling on the grounds that Michael Newdow, a noncustodial parent, “lacked sufficient custody of his daughter to represent her in Federal court” (Becket). The Becket Fund, while lobbying the Supreme Court of the United States with an amicus brief on behalf of the Knights of Columbus (the world’s largest Catholic fraternal service organization), argued “historical references to the ‘Laws of Nature’ and ‘Nature’s God’ [were] not primarily religious,” that “such phrases [embodied] our [Founders’] political philosophy,” and that recitation of the phrase “under God” principally “[reflected] the principle that no government can undermine our rights because they emanate from a higher source than the state,” essentially “demonstrating that the phrase ‘under God’ is not only constitutionally permissible but philosophically laudable” (Becket).
Through usage of simple logic, “under God” simply cannot communicate “timeless American values” as the phrase “under God” only manifested in the Flag Code in 1954 — during the Red Scare — sixty-two years after the Pledge of Allegiance’s original composition by Francis Bellamy and twelve years after Congress’ official adoption of the oath. If anything, the removal of “under God” from the Pledge of Allegiance maintains closer tradition to “timeless American values” than the current incantation.
Beyond violating the Constitution, the Pledge of Allegiance also presents certain ethical dilemmas, namely concepts pertaining to state-sanctioned indoctrination of children and falsehoods presented within the language of the oath. Detractors consider the Pledge of Allegiance a form a state-sanctioned indoctrination, especially since the recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance is more common among school-age children while in their classrooms than among adults in almost any other setting. More disturbingly, however, children in classrooms have historically been forced by teachers and administrators to recite the Pledge of Allegiance. In the state of California, student requirements to conduct a daily patriotic activity are state law, and while recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance carries no mandatory enforcement itself, according to KPCC journalist Mary Plummer in a 2013 interview with National Public Radio’s Michel Martin on this very subject, the Pledge of Allegiance seems to be the go-to act of patriotism for these teachers and administrators enforcing state policy on students. Beyond California’s mandatory acts of patriotism as a citizenly requirement, the same interview included sound-bytes of what a collection of kindergartners and first-graders — children forced to participate in mandatory daily acts of patriotism — thought regarding the meaning of the Pledge of Allegiance. One student said, “It means that — it’s, like, good for things.” Another expressed, “I don’t know. Represents America.” Yet another student replied, “To be nice to God.” Clearly, these children do not understand the depth of their communication when they recite the Pledge of Allegiance every morning, yet, daily, their hands are placed gently upon their chests, their eyes deviate to a diminutive replica of our most recognizable national symbol, and their voices emanate a collection of words for which they are without understanding — like a colony of ants, assimilated.
Falsehoods in the language of the Pledge of Allegiance form the basis for another ethical quandary represented in the oath. The final line advocates “liberty and justice for all,” yet there exist numerous instances — both throughout history and in the modern day — where “liberty and justice for all” simply are not applicable to all Americans. During World War II, the United States government incarcerated around 110,000 Japanese men, women, and children to internment camps (“War Relocation Authority”), of which United States citizens made up sixty-two percent of the detained (Department of the Interior). The internment of these people, especially the internment of those that were U.S. citizens, violated the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments of the Constitution of the United States. Modernly, the American criminal justice system contradicts the idea of “justice for all” due to concepts like mandatory minimum sentencing, the disproportionate number of people of color in the system, race-and-gender-based courtroom biases, and the increasing rate of overturned convictions based on new or re-evaluated evidence. Furthermore, many Americans are denied full liberty, particularly due to concepts like Voter Identification Laws, which exist for the purpose of disenfranchising minority voters (Rogowski and Cohen), the number of jurisdictions along the American landscape that deny members of the LGBT community the same marriage rights afforded to their heterosexual counterparts (Eckholm 2013), and the income inequality that continues searing through the middle class like a hot knife through butter (Boushey and Hersh 2012).
These injustices, and many others that take place daily, continue their existence in the American state while children, like their parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents before them, pledge an oath to their nation that includes diction consistently shown to be as truthful as Richard Nixon declaring he “[was not] a crook.”
One of the most disturbing attributes of the Pledge of Allegiance rests in its fundamental identity — a blind oath, a pledge of unquestionable allegiance to a nation, an example of extreme nationalism. While the occasional act of nationalism, such as flying an American flag on Memorial Day or watching vibrant explosives illuminate the sky on Independence Day, is, for the most part, non-problematic, abuse of nationalistic tendencies historically have taken place. Concepts of extreme nationalism — such as declaring an unapologetic, unquestioned, and uncompromising oath to a nation — hinge on the notion of a single cultural identity. Yet, the United States features a diverse array of cultures with a diverse array of traditions, and thus, extreme nationalism in the United States presents a logical fallacy. For example, one of the first challenges to the Pledge of Allegiance came from Jehova’s Witnesses, whose beliefs prohibit them from swearing allegiance to any entity lesser than their God. The Supreme Court of the United States ruled against their plight in Minersville School District v. Gobitis (1940), sparking nationwide social outrage, mob violence, and intimidation against Jehova’s Witnesses, who had dared to challenge American nationalism. Eventually, the Supreme Court reversed itself in the wake of the chaos with their ruling in West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnett (Konkoly). In this example, the extreme nationalism rampant in the United States caused nationwide violence against a religious group for no other reason than they invoked free-exercise and challenged social normality.
Moreover, extreme nationalism bears a close association with Fascist principles and ideology. Pledge of devout allegiance to a nation frequently manifest in fascist, totalitarian, and dictatorial regimes, most notably in Germany during the Third Reich, Mussolini’s Italy during World War II, and the former Soviet Union until its collapse in the early 1990’s. These regimes, and other throughout history, all share concepts of extreme nationalism and blind patriotism, with models of hyper-nationalism forming a principle of foundation in the relationship between citizen and state. A manner in which these regimes cultivate hyper-nationalism is through indoctrination and oath-taking, similar to the Pledge of Allegiance. Critics further consider the Pledge of Allegiance to be a form of indoctrination — “to teach someone to fully accept the ideas, opinions, and beliefs of a particular group and not consider other ideas, opinions, and beliefs” (Merriam-Webster) — thus drawing comparison to fascist principles and begging the question of whether it is ethically responsible to propagate hyper-nationalistic ideas — especially ones that closely mirror fascism — on a public with strong disdain for such philosophies.
Criticisms of the Pledge of Allegiance note the oath as an unconstitutional, unethical, and borderline-fascist tradition. Various groups challenge this tradition for various reasons, despite the national consensus of American patriotism attached to the tradition. As an example of extreme nationalism, the Pledge of Allegiance strengthens concepts of extreme nationalism, allowing these models to pervert among the American populous, leading to violence, social ostracism, and the dismissal of certain inalienable rights for American citizens. These conflicts stand in stark contrast to everything the United States of America stands for, muddling an idea like “liberty and justice for all” and morphing the ideology in something bastardized, like “liberty and justice for some.” The Pledge of Allegiance creates an air of hyper-nationalism, which history has shown divides nations and their peoples, generating a twisted complex of distrust, misinformation, and irrational reactions to national complications, essentially a sizable degree of conflicts whose existence runs through the veins of modern America like a poison. Logically, if extreme nationalism creates these rifts, or at least contributes to these rifts, then rectification resides in the removal of hyper-nationalism from the public conscious, and the first principle to go should be a blind oath indoctrinated on youth lacking the understanding of their pledge.
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