March 24, 2004

Leading Pigeons to the Flag

A long-standing ritual in the schools in the United States is the Pledge of Allegiance, in which the children are called upon to recite the words:

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.
The pledge has been the subject of much controversy and litigation over the years. Members of the Watchtower Bible Society object to saying the pledge on the grounds that it constitutes idolatry. Many people have refused to recite the pledge as a form of political protest. This was not uncommon during the Vietnam War. The latest controversy surrounds the inclusion of the words under God, which were added in 1954 after a campaign by the Knights of Columbus. In a 2002 decision reported here the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals held that the Pledge is unconstitutional because these words violate freedom of religion. The case is shortly to be heard by the Supreme Court.

The case now before the Supreme Court is a narrow one, concerning only whether the inclusion of the words under God violates the freedom of religion of those who do not believe in God or who do not consider the United States to be a nation under God. That this is the case is so plain that I am stunned that any rational person can argue otherwise. What else could the words possibly mean? The Knights of Columbus didn't want these words added because they they improved the poetic quality of the pledge. They added them in an effort to impose their religion on schoolchildren.

The larger controversy has been over forcing children to recite the Pledge in any form. The Supreme Court upheld the right of children to decline to participate in West Virginia State Board of Education vs. Barnette (1943) and reaffirmed it in Tinker vs. Des Moines Independent School Board (1969) where it held that students

do not shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse door
Nonetheless, schools have frequently acted in defiance of the Court and the Constitution. When I was a junior high school student during the Vietnam War, my school tried to force students to recite the Pledge, which was reintroduced in an effort to suppress anti-war sentiment. A 14-year old should not have to remind a school principal of Supreme Court decisions. According to this report from 2002, the Walker County, Alabama school board requires students to recite the pledge. In the incident reported, a student was beaten for refusing to recite the pledge and silently holding up his clenched fist in protest. The school board claimed he was punished for "disrupting class" rather than for refusing to recite the pledge. How did he disrupt class? By refusing to recite the pledge and holding up his clenched fist. Where I come from, the school board's disingenuousness is called lying.

If any further evidence is needed that the purpose of the Pledge of Allegiance is to inculcate mindless loyalty to the state, it can be found in the fact that many children clearly do not understand what they are saying. This can be seen in the eggcorns that they construct. My mother tells me that as a little girl she believed that there was a thing called a legiance that she was pledging to the flag. She didn't know what it was. In today's column in the New York Times, entitled Of God and the Flag, William Safire reports that as a little boy he thought that the Pledge began "I led the pigeons to the flag". In a roundabout way, I think he understood it all too well.

Posted by Bill Poser at March 24, 2004 08:52 AM