The McNicholas Milestone welcomes Letters to the Editor. The views expressed in this Letter to the Editor do not necessarily represent the views or opinions of Archbishop McNicholas High School administration, faculty, or students. With any submission, The McNicholas Milestone reserves the right to edit as well as refuse publishing any material that could be libelous, in poor taste, or irrelevant to our audience.
By Lexi Gauger, Class of 2018
The words are all too familiar: “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.” Most students in America can recite it in a sing-song chant before they’ve lost their baby teeth. We at McNick start each morning with it, right alongside a prayer. It may be difficult to imagine a world in which it’s considered strange to swear loyalty to your country before your daily activities, but most of the world doesn’t, and America hasn’t always.
The original Pledge of Allegiance was written by Francis J. Bellamy and published in a magazine called The Youth’s Companion in 1892. It had no official authority, but it became wildly popular as a show of patriotism right on the heels of the Civil War. Conveniently, the magazine company also sold American flags, and the introduction of the pledge drove up flag sales. The text read, “I pledge allegiance to my Flag and the Republic for which it stands, one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” Until 1942, the pledge was performed with the right hand raised in the “Bellamy Salute,” but due to its resemblance to the fascist “Heil Hitler” salute, Congress decided that placing the right hand over the heart was more appropriate. Minor changes have been made to the original text since then, but by far the most controversial is the addition of “under God,” which came in 1954. This was meant to draw a contrast between the US and the Soviet Union, which was a decidedly atheistic country. Most criticism of this is based on the Establishment clause, the Constitutional caveat that the government should not be involved in religious affairs or give formal recognition or restriction to any religion. The words “under God” have been challenged many times in court, but thus far have been upheld.
There are no situations in which recital of the pledge is legally required, but there is massive social pressure to perform it. The 1943 Supreme Court case West Virginia v. Barnette ruling stated that no person can be forced to say any part of the pledge, citing that “compulsion is not a permissible means of achieving national unity.” Because of the symbolism behind the pledge, it is often used as a tool in protest. The landmark Supreme Court case Tinker v. Des Moines of 1969 set the precedent for symbolic speech in schools, including the freedom to sit during the Pledge of Allegiance. No public institution can force a person to recite the pledge, however, private institutions are not held to the standards of the Bill of Rights. This means that private schools are legally allowed to compel students to stand and recite the pledge.
The pledge is a huge promise with massive ramifications- can we really demand that children do this?
It’s not about being unpatriotic- quite the opposite. If we value the principles of democracy and want America to continue to be a constitutional republic, we cannot pledge blind allegiance. We must pledge involvement. We must pledge to hold our public officials to high standards. We must pledge to ensure that the rights enumerated in the Constitution are respected for everyone.
Liberty and justice for all is a great ideal, but one to which the US doesn’t always live up. Liberty is limited constantly, and is only recently beginning to expand. Requiring recital of the pledge is in itself a limitation of liberty, making the whole situation extremely paradoxical. In de facto terms, the social pressure to conform and say the pledge makes it functionally required. We don’t have freedom of expression when we are not free from coercion.
It is even harder for marginalized peoples to pledge allegiance to this country which has, in its past and in its present, brazenly denied them the right to liberty, justice, free will, and even life. For many groups at many points in history the words have been a blatant lie. A nation that claims the right to take the life of a citizen deemed “criminal enough” by the flawed justice system cannot simultaneously tout “liberty and justice for all.” A nation that allows discrimination in employment, housing, and healthcare against its minority and LGBTQ+ citizens cannot simultaneously tout “liberty and justice for all.” A nation that forcibly detained Japanese Americans, denied them the right to life, liberty, and property, cannot simultaneously tout “liberty and justice for all.” A nation that denies aid to its Puerto Rican citizens and allows the damage and deaths to compound cannot simultaneously tout “liberty and justice for all.” A nation that turned away Jewish refugees during the Holocaust and continues to turn away refugees fleeing war zones cannot simultaneously tout “liberty and justice for all.” A nation that, for half of its history, denied that black Americans were even human and still has a hard time with the idea that hating people based on race is bad cannot simultaneously tout “liberty and justice for all.” The pledge is a sacred oath, carries enormous weight, and to recite it when the words ring so hollow is to make a mockery of the values of our country. Choosing to say it when the words are false devalues the oath entirely and shows disrespect for the Constitution, the Founding Fathers, and all the citizens, military, and public servants who fight each day to bring truth to the words.
And you’re right- we do have it better here in America that in many, or even most other countries. We have more freedoms, better health care, more opportunities, and all of this is fantastic and should be celebrated. But why should we be satisfied just because things could be worse? What’s truly patriotic is to keep pushing forward, to keep progressing in the best interests of the country, to relentlessly drive America to be the best it can be. I do love our country- and out of love, I will refuse to pledge submission.
So where do we go from here? I would propose a better, revised pledge that emphasizes civic and social responsibility and calls for unity in the nation and the world. The pledge should compel citizens to take an interest in politics on all levels, to critically examine history and global relations, to value sustainability, to care for the marginalized, and to preserve both unity and diversity in the country. Most of all, the pledge should encourage citizens to make “liberty and justice for all” a reality from sea to shining sea.