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The Problem With the Pledge

You just can't separate religion from politics, 'under God' or not.

by James Leroy Wilson
June 24, 2004

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I wrote a piece, unlikely to ever be published, which was a reflection on Ronald Reagan's legacy. Many of its ideas appeared in last week's column, but overall it was far more critical. But not so much of Reagan personally, more of what he inspired or re-inspired, nationalistic patriotism.

The most obvious instance of this goes back to the 1988 Presidential election campaign, when Reagan's Republican sucessor George Bush made a big deal about his Democratic opponent, Massachusetts governor Michael Dukakis, vetoing a state law that would have mandated the saying of the Pledge of Allegiance in the state's public schools. Dukakis protested that he was advised that the act was unconstitutional. He had too much class, I suppose, to accuse Republicans exploiting this issue of being fascists.

But it would have been a fair charge. The Pledge of Allegiance is fascist. Initially, it was designed with a hand salute that resembles "Heil Hitler. Fascism teaches that our lives are to exist for the State. When we Pledge Allegiance, what else are we doing?

"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."

Why do nations have flags in the first place? They express military dominance over the land. The most useful thing about a flag is that, in combat, it is a visible sign of where the bulk of the troop strength is. The soldier who has been cut off from his regiment's point of attack would see the flag and know where to go.

A nation-state in our world is defined by one military organization - government - establishing a monopoly of force over the land. The flag says, "you are under the control of the United States' national government and armed forces." To voluntarily raise the flag on your own property, or to wave it proudly, is to say, "I am very happily under the control of the United States' national government and armed forces." To say the Pledge is to say that this arrangement deserves my loyalty. And remember, the pledge isn't to "liberty and justice for all" but only to what this national government proclaims to be "liberty and justice for all."

Perhaps the original military purpose of using distinct banners in combat is obsolete. Still, it is curious how a strategic rallying symbol of the most unfree, regulated, and hierarchical organization in society - the military - can be transformed instead into a symbol for Freedom and Democracy.

It is the Confederate battle flag, not the official flag of the Confederate States of America, that is today venerated by Southern nationalists, and also by racists. This probably says something. It is banners waved over battles that capture our hearts and imaginations. The excitement and inspiration of fighting and dying for a cause inspires many of us, particularly of the male persuasion. The Flag icon that identifies this very column was itself a flag for the American navy in the early part of the War for Indpendence.

The Pledge of Allegiance, written by the socialist and nationalist Francis Bellamy in the 1890’s, soon paid dividends. Maybe on some weird, Darwinian level, this once made sense. For most of civilization, too many women died in childbirth or were stricken by other diseases. Perhaps men went to war to "even out" the population. Maybe they were actually inclined to do so. Maybe this still holds true in the "two-thirds" world of under-developed, but developing, Latin America, Africa, and Asia. Maybe that's another reason to leave them alone and not provoke them with a military presence and political intrigue. Why make ourselves targets of young foreign men who are willing to die with a sense of purpose and honor?

Maybe the USA's utterly pointless and bloody excursions in the Spanish-American War, an American-created mini-genocide of the Philippines, and our equally inexcusable involvement in World War I, were a means of reducing from the world excess male populations. Maybe, but that only justifies things on a species-level consciousness and sense of adaptation. It doesn't make it morally right. Maybe, at one point, the Pledge of Allegiance inspired otherwise superfluous males to decide to kill and be killed for the country. But modern warfare has more to do with massacring men, women, and children alike with massive air bombing campaigns. War is about destroying the lives and property of civilians, not the defeat of all-male armies. Shall I then join the armed forces and trust my Commander-in-Chief to order me to do what's right? Well, that's what the Pledge of Allegiance teaches us.

The problem with the Pledge is that it is confusing, on the most fundamental level of moral confusion. How can we really "pledge allegiance to the flag" and at the same time, pledge allegiance to different gods and religious faiths?

The Supreme Court was correct in dismissing the case whether "under God" in the Pledge recited in a public school violated the First Amendment. It ruled, admirably, that the father of the alleged victim of this exercise, his daughter, was not under his legal custody. She was not, so he had no "standing," no cause to bring the case to court.

This in itself is a victory, of sorts. It reminds us that only an aggrieved party, someone who would be made worse off by an allegedly unconstitutional law, would have the standing to bring the case to the federal court. How the Supreme Court ruled, was a severe reprimand and reminder to the lower federal courts on how to treat cases brought on by activists. That, in itself, is more important than an actual "under God" ruling.

This was the best possible outcome for this decision; no other could have possibly been good. For the problem all along was indeed a problem of the "separation of Church and State." But it is the Pledge itself, and not the "under God" part, that is the problem.

The real problem was this: the Pledge without "under God" was leading the children to pledge something to a godless entity, and to pay tribute (taxes), conform to values (the government's laws), participate in civic rituals, and to go to war for the Flag and the Republic for which it stands. This makes religion and Church irrelevant, because the secular State, not in any way "under God," is calling you to make sacrifices of your own life, liberty, property, and happiness in support of itself. In other words, the Pledge without "under God" is calling the individual to religious duties, while denying that it's a religion. There's a word for this, named for the hero who saw the contradiction between government rhetoric and government policy: Orwellian.

On the other hand, the Pledge *with* "under God" is just as morally confusing, and at worst, it is blasphemy. What empowers politicians more, than that young children in public schools learn reading, writing, and arithmetic and also the Pledge of Allegiance, in addition to what they learn in Sunday School and church? In the mind of the poor child, it is all incorporated into one reality. No wonder politicians want people to be "conservative" church-goers or otherwise religious, yet also want to increase government education. They get the best of both worlds. The children will see "fighting for their country" as a religious duty, and the moral restoration of America as their patriotic duty. The patriotic and the religious cause become inseparable, even as an artificial distinction remains in their heads. And that's been the intent all along. Create moral fog in the minds of the American people, and they will have little choice but to follow authority, whatever that authority happens to be.

The Pledge of Allegiance is manipulative, it only creates moral confusion. With that in mind, I would suggest that the Pledge without "under God" is the lesser evil than the Pledge with it. It maintains a false distinction between Church and State, which is less bad than confusing the Church's holy purposes with the State's agenda, which the "under God" revision tends to do.

The main problem is that separating Church and State, and religious beliefs from political beliefs, is impossible. The organizing principles that bring order and ethics - politics - to society, must be that society's fundamental religion. Other Gods, if popular, might be tolerated, at least if they are properly deferent. (Apparently, David Koresh's sect in Waco was not). But the beliefs to which you most strongly hold, and the values to which you hold most dear, are basically the content of your religion, your internal moral constitution that you want to see manifested in the political order. I suspect that many Americans, particularly American Christians, hold on to a naive trust in American institutions, the nationalist ideal, and the concept of America as world savior through philanthropy and crusades for democracy. They trust the government to stamp out evil at home and abroad, and feel themselves entitled to either hate the President for not stomping out evil in the ways they wish, or by hating critics of the President, who is deep-down well-intentioned and courageous, and far better than the previous President.

In other words, their thoughts, their ethics, and even their religious doctrines have been fatally compromised by the Cult of the Flag, by the values taught by the Pledge of Allegiance.

For a genuinely religious person of any faith, the God you worship can not have a competitor. You can't serve one God for personal inspiration and discipline, yet serve another God to be the center of social and political life. It's a contradiction, but it's a comfortable one because we've had it for so long. But in the meantime, even churches that grow in numbers decline in relevancy, while the national government has morphed into a World Empire, that is openly justifying torture, and the arbitrary arrests of American citizens.

One way to fight back, and to restore some clarity and genuine religious obedience to your life, is to never say the Pledge of Allegiance ever again.

Comments (3)


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John from In my chair at my computer writes:
June 24, 2004
Here, here! A flag is just gang colors. A piece of cloth that divides people from one another. It says, I am better than you are. And so the fight can begin. I am a county board supervisor and I don't say the pledge at the beginning of our meetings. I took an oath to uphold the constitution, not a piece of cloth.

Jonathan Wilson from Chicago writes:
June 25, 2004
I am one of the American Christians. I spoke once regarding the Pledge of Allegiance from the pulpit, and I spun a neutral position. Nowhere does the pledge require allegiance to a government or a president, it requires allegiance to an indivisible republic with liberty and justice for all. When we recite such a pledge, we are not committing ourselves to our country right or wrong, or our President just because he prays, or our wars for the sake of being supportive of our troops. We are committing ourselves to liberty and justice for all within the indivisible republic. I do not agree that this makes me confused or idolatrous. I am not in control of what the pledge means to other Americans or American Christians.

vela writes:
June 26, 2004
The main problem is that separating Church and State, and religious beliefs from political beliefs, is impossible. The organizing principles that bring order and ethics - politics - to society, must be that society's fundamental religion.

But we must try as best as we can to separate government policy from religious doctrine. It is true that for each person to vote, they must consider many things, including their religious beliefs. But it is IMPORTANT in politics that policy try to divorce itself from any one religion as much as possible. I do not want the government dictating what I should believe as I do not want a church to be dictating who I should vote for. These two institutions are checks and balances for each other in daily life. The government was NEVER meant to be a moral beacon for citizens. We expect a certain level of ethical behavior from ANY leader of ANY group that has to do with governance alone...no lying, no graft, etc. Morality concerns much more than leadership ethics and should. It is best not to confuse the pastor with the President. The President is NOT our pastor and many pastors would make horrible Presidents. It is good to remember that.

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