From several of my favorite blogs comes a story that I find very touching. A ten-year-old boy in Arkansas, with early ambitions of becoming a lawyer, said he starting thinking about the words in the Pledge of Allegiance, and decided that he could not in good conscience make that pledge. The Pledge says that the flag and the nation stand for “liberty and justice for all,” and he doesn’t think that we do such a good job of providing liberty and justice to gays and lesbians.
In doing this, he has risked discipline from his teachers (the Constitution forbids disciplining a student for not reciting the pledge in a public school — although he doesn’t have a right to tell his teacher to “jump off a bridge,” so his detention was a righteous one), teaching and harassment from his peers (who have called him “gay,” and he says he’s a straight ally — I say, how do such phrases have meaning when you’re ten?) and perhaps even the obloquy of his community. Seeing as he showed up for his CNN interview wearing a T-shirt that says “Geeks 22 ever,” maybe he’s used to a little teasing. The kid is obviously very bright and articulate, and old enough to start forming his own opinions about the world around him. I think he’ll do well in life.
How many Pledge advocates have ever really thought about what it says? Let’s break it down, why don’t we?
“I pledge allegiance” — Right off the bat, we can see that this is a political act. “Allegiance” means “the loyalty of a citizen to his or her government or of a subject to his or her sovereign.” By taking the Pledge, you offering your emotional, intellectual and political adherence. To whom or what are you swearing fidelity?
“…to the flag of the United States of America,” — The object of your loyalty and fidelity is a flag. What is a “flag?” It is “a piece of cloth, varying in size, shape, color, and design, usually attached at one edge to a staff or cord, and used as the symbol of a nation, state, or organization, as a means of signaling, etc.; ensign; standard; banner; pennant.” You are offering your loyalty to a piece of cloth. Note that the piece of cloth is a symbol of an inchoate entity. You can’t touch or feel the United States of America; the nation is not the same thing as the land that it controls politically, it is not a document (even the Constitution), it is not a person or a group of people. It is an idea. But the Pledge of Allegiance (sometimes incorrectly called the “Flag Salute”) at this point does not promise loyalty to that idea, it promises loyalty directly to the symbol of that idea. But, of course, it doesn’t end there.
“…and to the Republic for which it stands,” — Here, we’re getting closer to, but do not actually yet arrive at, the idea of the United States of America. After first offering loyalty to a symbol, the Pledger now offers that same loyalty to a “Republic.” What is a “republic?” It is a particular form of government: “a state in which the supreme power rests in the body of citizens entitled to vote and is exercised by representatives chosen directly or indirectly by them.”
“…one nation,” — Recall the history of the Pledge. It was first written in 1892 by a Christian Socialist named Francis Bellamy. (Oh noes, creeping socialism!) In 1892, the Civil War was still within living memory, much as the Cold War is within living memory today. Those among you Readers who believe that the United States should be referred to with the verb “are” rather than the verb “is,” cannot in good conscience take this Pledge. By taking the Pledge you acknowledge that the several States are ultimately subordinate to the Federal government, that they are part of a larger, unitary whole — in the same way that your lung is an inseparable part of your entire body. Federalism as practiced in American constitutional law is a subtle and sometimes slippery concept and always has been. Balancing the Supremacy Clause and the Tenth Amendment is an intellectual tightrope, but faithfulness to the Constitution requires that we walk it. The states are the repository of the vestigal power of the King of England and hold plenary power. But ultimate power is in the national government.
“…under God,” — Again, recall your history. This phrase was not in the 1892 draft of the Pledge; it was added in 1954 as part of an effort to root out “godless Communists” from within the ranks of the American citizenry. (Never mind that Americans have a Constitutional right to be godless, and under a principled analysis of the document, a Constitutional right to be Communists, if they wish.) I need not elaborately go over the fact that the Constitution does not reference “God,” and even the Declaration of Independence (an important document although not one containing any legal authority) references a “Creator” rather than the simpler and less ambiguous word “God.” The 1954 amendment to the Pledge corrupts its core meaning because Americans who do not believe in God cannot in good faith recite it, and it therefore excludes a category of Americans from those whose loyalty is welcome.
“…indivisible,” — Remember, the original Pledge was written in 1892, when there were still plenty of people around who had fought in the Civil War. If you’re like me and think that the Civil War was the worst time in American history, a darker, bloodier, and more evil hour in hour history even than the early days of WWII, then you should be anxious to affirm with me the belief that our nation is at the end of the day a unitary whole and that we should never again see Americans fighting Americans. On the other hand, if you’d like to see your state have the power to secede from the socialism that is infecting our government, perhaps you ought to leave the Pledge out of your next Tea Party.
“…with liberty and justice for all.” “Liberty” is “freedom from arbitrary or despotic government or control” and “justice” is “righteousness, equitableness, or moral rightness, lawfulness“. Now, at last, we get to the real ideas that are the United States of America. The rule of law. A government that protects the rights of the individual. Equality and equity. Due process. Deeply libertarian ideals. And ideals to which we will always fall short. If I can fault this brave and intelligent young man from Arkansas, it is that he is allowing his frustration that in practice we fall short of this ideal to obstruct his view of the fact that as a nation we strive and struggle every day to bring ourselves closer to it. Like a rainbow, this can only ever be a beautiful vision, always just out of reach, no matter how hard or fast we pursue it. We do not deliver on our promise of liberty and justice for all, it is true. But within the confines of our peaceful, democratic, and lawful government, we work as a people and a nation to chase that rainbow and the trend is to always move closer to it.
It is sad that so many Americans cannot look past the unpopularity of individuals who ask for this sort of treatment — communists and atheists in the fifties, gays and lesbians in the particular case today — and ironically, that these sorts of people have gone so far as to write their own bigotry and selective exclusion from these ideals into the Pledge itself.
For myself, I recite the old Pledge, the one without the phrase “under God.” I do not believe in God and it is my right as an American to not believe in God. That Pledge was good enough for many generations of Americans and it’s good enough for me. I think swearing loyalty to a piece of cloth is silly, but swearing loyalty to a government that protects individual rights and the rule of law is not. So long as that flag symbolizes a nation that truly and fundamentally stands for those ideals, I have no problem avowing loyalty to it.
And as a means of forswearing the possibility of return to the bloody days of the Civil War, the Pledge strikes me as worthy indeed.
And most importantly, I have no problem at all with a bright and brave young man who is righteously outraged to see that the nation to which he too would like to give his loyalty falls short of its own ideals and is making his own stand to make it better, to make us chase that rainbow. That is the mark of the truest sort of patriot our country can produce, and for making that stand, Will Phillips, a fifth-grader from West Fork, Arkansas, earns this blog’s particular mark of esteem, the Big Brass Ones Award.
Hat tips to, inter alia, Preaching to the Choir and Debate Link. And a hearty round of “boos” to the CNN anchors, who seemed condescending towards this remarkable young man after the interview was done.
UPDATE: Inspired by this story, another kid, a teenager from Wasila, Alaska, refused to stand for the pledge and got in big trouble, up to and including a threat by the principal to withhold his high school diploma. Kind of a big deal. As it turned out, his parents told him that they wanted him to stand, if not necessarily say the words out loud, and he decided to respect his parents’ decision. I guess I can understand that. The blatant ignorance of the law displayed by his principal is appalling — Alaska Statute 14.03.130(b) provides that:
A school district shall inform all affected persons at the school of their right not to participate in the pledge of allegiance. The exercise of the right not to participate in the pledge of allegiance may not be used to evaluate a student or employee or for any other purpose.
I know not reciting the Pledge is not a popular thing to do, and not standing for the pledge is a decision a lot of people will disagree with. But freedom means you must tolerate people who do things with which you disagree.