The more I think about it, the less I like the “The Pledge of Allegiance.” Drafted and revised in the late nineteenth century, officially adopted and named during the Second World War, and finally amended a decade later during the Cold War against “godless communism” to add the words “under God,” it is a simple, thirty-one word, statement: “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.” But I want to pledge my allegiance to something better or higher than a two-part loyalty oath to a flag and a form of government.
First consider the flag, originally and usually, a piece of cloth with a design and colors having symbolic meaning. Most Americans probably know that the thirteen stripes represent the original thirteen colonies and the stars reflect the number of states in the Union. I have a problem with leaving out Washington, D.C., our nation’s capital and home of nearly 700,000 citizens, a larger population than the populations of the states of Vermont and Wyoming. Of course, most of D.C.’s citizens are blacks (Vermont and Wyoming are almost entirely white), and America has historically not much liked blacks. So the flag, by omission, today symbolizes racial disenfranchisement. Most Americans probably have no idea what values its colors red, white, and blue represent. According to tradition, white: purity and innocence; red: hardiness and valor; blue: vigilance, perseverance, and justice. Those ideals might be matched against the political or social reality: corruption and naiveté; self-indulgence and service-dodging; denial, avoidance, and abuse. The point: a pledge of allegiance to an object having little-known symbolic values is a loyalty oath of empty words meaning little and inspiring nothing.
Then consider the republic for which the flag is a symbol, “a state in which supreme power is held by the people and their elected representatives, and which has an elected or nominated president rather than a monarch”—in a word, a democracy more or less like America’s. Again, the ideal is worthy, but the reality is not. The “people” have not been all the people, only shifting sub-sets of the population because many—blacks, women, Indians—have historically been excluded from citizenship or elective power, many presently still disproportionately hindered from voting. Democrats want the franchise expanded and protected. Republicans are right that Democrats would benefit from a larger electorate, but they are hypocritical since they benefit from a smaller one. Self-interest cuts both ways, but the Democrats’ self-interest also serves the commitment in the Declaration of Independence to the “consent of the governed.” On the contrary, with control of executive and legislative branches in over two dozen states, Republicans are redoubling their efforts to disenfranchise or otherwise restrict access to the ballot box by blacks, Hispanics, the poor, and students, to give the GOP a better chance of winning elections. In their political precincts, Republicans give the pledge a lot of lip-service but little support. Power to the party matters much more to them than power to the people. But saying so would make for an even lousier pledge of allegiance.
Any pledge of loyalty in America to a “Republic” which is “one Nation” is a pledge to a non-existent entity. American is not “one Nation,” and, if it is not “one” nation, it is not anything like a “Nation.” For, in simple terms, a nation is a group of people unified by a common legacy of descent, history, culture, and language, usually but not always, living contiguously (the Jewish people are a notable exception; its members are scattered worldwide in groups and as individuals). Our diversity denies us the status of a nation, with people of many descents, histories, cultures, and languages. We cannot overcome this diversity by a campaign to make English a national language, as if uniformity of language alone could overcome all other differences. There are too many of us and just too much of ours to overcome to make us unum e pluribus. Since we are not a nation or a people, the only reliable basis of unity is allegiance to a civil society with a democratic government, public and secular to ensure equality, as defined by America’s Constitution.
As for the rest of the Pledge, there is little enough to say. The idea that we are “under God” is an insignificant platitude and a needless embellishment; taken seriously, it means only that all nations and all peoples are similarly situated. The idea that we are “indivisible” defies the fact of our divisions, both historical and contemporary. And the idea that we embrace the idea of “liberty and justice for all” is belied by past history and current events, with all parties feeling helpless in the face of powerful elites and forces controlling their lives, or aggrieved by the perceived advantages of all other parties.
Perhaps we should replace the Pledge of Allegiance with a complete do-over which better reflects the patriotic values of our democracy—a hopeless suggestion because we would have to agree on a definition of patriotism. As we have known probably since the Second World War and certainly since the Vietnam War, opinions differ because violently disagreeing political opponents claim themselves to be patriotic and accuse others of treason—more proof that we are not one nation. Until we have agreed on a definition of who we are and what we esteem, no pledge will be unifying. If asked, I would urge a pledge which, reflecting our founding documents, states our aspirations to achieve equality under the law, freedom for all peoples, and the fullest possible exercise of individual rights which does not infringe on anyone else’s equality, freedom, or rights.
As for the National Anthem and the ritual of standing while it is played or sung before athletic contests—please don’t get me started.