I Pledge…I Guess

By John Gascoyne

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.

Confession time: yes, I frequent Facebook. In fact, it’s become more than just a habit – it is, however mild, an embarrassing addiction.

John Gascoyne is a writer and lawyer living in Fort Collins, Colo. Learn more about him…

I recently responded to one of those frequent and superficial Facebook polls. The question for this one: “Should children recite the Pledge of Allegiance daily in our public schools?”

A raft of responses was unanimous-zip in favor of pledging – until I started typing.

In somewhat snarky words, I asked if all schoolchildren should be required to pledge and if that should also hold true for middle and high school kids, and what about college students? Now I was on a roll: what about adults? What about those apparently unpatriotic miscreants, students and older, who would rather not feel forced to declare their allegiance – can their property be confiscated? Can they otherwise be forced into compliance?

Some context: we live in a time of oughts and ought-nots. We ought to feel just fine about the new regime; we ought to manifest our patriotic righteousness in manifest ways; we ought to assume that there will be elections in 2018; we ought to cheerfully pay our taxes while the elite evade theirs; we ought to be okay with critical classified information being peddled as a blue light special on Aisle 3, etc.

So…we ought to force our children to have their voices daily ring with the Pledge of Allegiance; we adults ought to recite it daily; we ought to think about placing our hands over our exposed hearts and reciting it in the bedroom with our lovers just before we…the possibilities are endless.

Before we get too far down the patriotic road, however, let’s learn a bit about the Pledge and student participation in it and with it.

The first known recital of the Pledge by students was on Columbus Day in 1892. Although it soon became something of a cultural hit, there were some who objected to reciting it in school and elsewhere – some extremist groups for religious reasons, some extremist individuals for a myriad of personal reasons.

Francis Bellamy was the author of the first version of the Pledge and wrote it in 1892. Three different sources describe Francis in three somewhat different ways:

  • According to one, he was the son of a Baptist preacher and a socialist, wanting to criticize, via the Pledge, the excessive greed and extreme individualism of the time.
  • In a Smithsonian-released 2003 article, Bellamy is described as an ordained minister – with no mention of socialist inclinations.
  • In something of a tie-breaker, the Huffington Post identifies the author as a Christian Socialist.

Whether to pledge or not to pledge became an issue that roiled through our society for many years. In 1943, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that students do not have to participate in the Pledge. The ensuing legal history of the issue seemed to settle corollary issues:

  • Students do not have to stand while their comrades recite the Pledge.
  • Students cannot be compelled to leave the room during the Pledge.
  • Teachers cannot single out a non-complying student nor can they comment upon an individual’s decision to exercise their choice.

Whether these laws of the land are actually respected is, of course, a different question, one to be determined by tracking individual schools and classrooms.

The wording of the Pledge has some elasticity and has seen modifications over the years. The most recent, and likely the most controversial change, was finalized in 1954. Consider the historical context of the time: we were hotly engaged in the Cold War and “godless communism” was the enemy du jour. What to do, what to do?

Dwight D. Eisenhower was President at the time and not a member of any particular religion when he entered office. Assumedly influenced by his wife, Mamie, he was baptized into her church and became a serious Presbyterian.

Many groups had begun advocating to insert “under God” into the Pledge of Allegiance. Perhaps most prominent was the Knights of Columbus, an activist group of laymen Catholics. (My dad was a member of the Coral Gables, Fla., branch at the time; don’t recall any discussions on point.) The Knights are generally found at the head of the line when credit for the added two words is accorded.

Eisenhower, then, with overwhelming support, effected the introduction of the two words “under God into the Pledge of Allegiance. Despite occasional efforts to go back to the older phrasing, the two words have been there ever since. There is little reason to believe that things will change in the foreseeable future. (“In God We Trust” replaced E Pluribus Unum as our national motto, also during Eisenhower’s reign. We’ll reserve comment for a subsequent rant.)

In trying to assess my personal feelings about the Pledge, particularly the “new” Pledge, and by inference how I feel about the Flag, I’m all over the board:

  • December, 1958, my 19-year-old brother Peter is lowered into the ground at Denver’s Fort Logan National Cemetery. My last memory of him is the U.S. flag covering his coffin, giving him more accord and honor than might have otherwise been true.
  • November, 1962, in Hong Kong harbor, aboard the guided missile cruiser USS Topeka. The Cuban Missile Crisis erupts, my tour of duty is extended a year but I was okay with being there—serving under my country’s flag.
  • May 8, 1970: Four days after Kent State, the University of New Mexico is one of the many schools shut down amid the national chaos. The nation’s flag has been flying at half-mast in honor of the students murdered at Kent State. After four days, the flag is scheduled to be returned to full-staff and a group of veterans has gathered to ensure that this happens. I’m at the flag now, totally adrenalized and needing to act. The paradox manifests: I’m a student striker and feel the flag should remain lowered; I’m also a veteran and sympathetic to the other vets and their ambition to raise the flag. I’m not able to choose; I wander away and soon joined and began to lead the student marshals – student strikers dedicated to seeking peaceful resolutions on campus. A few days later, the New Mexico National Guard storms the campus and bayonets a dozen people, including three of my young marshals. The flag was flying at the top of its mast as this took place.
  • When I see tired old white politicos sporting Chinese-made flag pins on their lapels, I bristle and resent this supposed support of the flag. I see it as a sacrilege and resent their smug misstatement of patriotism.
  • When I’m standing for the Pledge of Allegiance, I go silent when we get to the words “under God,” then I pick it up on the flip side. My belief is that this “God” of the Pledge is not a Buddhist, a Hindu, or a Moslem god. No, I can’t get past the conviction that those two words are a Christian invention and that most everyone knows, even while vehemently denying reality, that this is an homage to Jesus Christ and that we are pledging our fealty to a particular god – the god of white Christian America.
  • There’s an old and somewhat stained U.S. flag in my hall closet. When the occasion warrants, I take it down from the shelf and fly it from my front porch. Any reservations are put aside: this always feels like the right thing to do.

I don’t know if we truly need pledges or if other people need to hear us making them. Nonetheless, I’ve drafted one that would work for me:

I Pledge Allegiance to the Constitution of the occasionally United States of America and to the Democracy for which it may or may not stand (depending upon situational considerations), one Nation which recognizes the separation of church and State, indivisible (other than gerrymandering for the benefit of Nazi wannabees) with liberty (after the end of the reign of King Donald and his gang of anti-American sycophants) and justice for all – not just for those who can buy it.