“God provided that in this land of liberty…our allegiance and the only allegiance we owe as citizens or denizens of the United States, runs to our inspired Constitution which God himself set up.”
- President J. Reuben Clark, Jr.
“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.”
- Francis Bellamy, 1892
I have to admit to a fair bit of nostalgia when I read the above words of our Pledge of Allegiance. They invoke memories of elementary school mornings. We would collectively stand together and while looking at the flag over the chalkboard recite in perfect unison our sacred oath of patriotic loyalty to the state. We spoke with a verbal cadence borne of vain repetition and rote memorization that belied a lack of full understanding but nevertheless firm resolve to…if nothing else, pledge allegiance. “I pledge allegiance…to the Flag…of the United States of America…and to the Republic…for which it stands…etc.”
For a young schoolboy or girl, the Pledge is a timeless, binding promise of national fidelity. Prior to Michael Newdow’s anti-religious, establishment clause case of 2002 no one had ventured to change the Pledge since the Knights of Columbus, a Catholic civic organization, persuaded Eisenhower to add “under God” 1954. No one with the authority to do so has dared strip it of any spiritual or patriotic significance since. Aside from that most consequential change, the Pledge had undergone a couple earlier revisions: a change from the Bellamy Salute to right hand over heart (more on that later); and, a change in the words “my Flag and the Republic” to “the Flag of the United States of America, and to the Republic”. There is more history which I won’t go into here, except to say, the author, Francis Bellamy, a self-described Christian Socialist and cousin of utopian socialist Edward Bellamy, may not have had the same pure motives as Francis Scott Key when he memorialized the Flag in “the Star Spangled Banner”.
More to the point, I’d like to examine the importance of the Pledge of Allegiance, and perhaps, in so doing, patriotism itself. The Pledge like any other oath carries significance beyond words and it is important to honestly appraise our willingness to carry out the implied promises we make as we recite it. Of course, as children, we act on blind faith, motivated by feelings of unity and national superiority (along with a fear of being criticized for sitting out the Pledge). We were rightly taught that America is the greatest nation in the history of the world. Who then would dare to refuse such an affirmation of loyalty to “the Flag…and to the republic for which it stands”? (Not me! I didn’t want to be like that J.W. kid who never had a birthday or got Halloween candy). Fortunately, children usually don’t struggle with those kinds of existential conflicts. Adults, however, should take a more considerate approach to something as important as oath-taking.
Let’s examine the Pledge’s component parts.
“I pledge allegiance to the Flag of the United States of America…”
A pledge of allegiance, first and foremost, is a statement of intellectual or emotional commitment; a binding affirmation to a particular course of action. Pledging allegiance to a flag alone is not a very compelling proposition. It must be strengthened by deeper explicit and implicit meaning, which we’ll look at below. However, if we were to try and glean something from this phrase alone, we could look to the design of the flag and what it represents. We all know from junior high civics that the stars on the flag represent the individual, sovereign states of the nation, while the stripes represent the original 13 colonies which unanimously declared their independence from Great Britain becoming sovereign states. As for the colors of the flag, there was no originally prescribed meaning. Certain colors have been used throughout history to represent different ideals or virtues (white=purity, red=valor, blue=integrity/truth), but these were never officially adopted. The implied commitment here is to follow the Flag of the United States of America into any conflict or cause.
“…and to the republic for which it stands…”
We make an oath to uphold the republic. There was a time when “republic” meant something more specific than: “everything but a monarchy”; when the word was not freely interchanged or co-opted by democracies, dictatorships, communists, socialists, and theocrats. This confusion is plainly manifest in those taking the Pledge of Allegiance. If the Pledge was taken seriously, we wouldn’t be living in a functioning socialist democracy. The erosion of language to the lowest common denominator has led to a host of doublespeak substitutes that confuse and alter our discourse, which, in turn has led to the gradual devolution of our political and philosophical understanding. Present circumstances notwithstanding, the propriety of pledging allegiance to a republic is, for most people, pretty innocuous. Even if we don’t do anything about it, it’s a noble ideal, especially, if the republic is seen as the logical extension of the Constitution.
“…one nation under God, indivisible…”
Here we begin to see more clearly what exactly Francis Bellamy had in mind when he wrote the Pledge. Remember, “under God” was not originally included in the Pledge. Bellamy’s daughter, Marion, remarked that he would not have been pleased with the change (google it). The addition interrupted what Bellamy intended to be a coherent, continuous phrase with a specific meaning. In 1892, Bellamy was not far removed from a Civil War fought over the right of individual states (as outlined by Jefferson and Madison in the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions) to nullify their compact if the federal government overstepped its enumerated powers, as outlined in the Constitution; a position that would challenge the superiority of the nation-state over the commonwealth or individual. I’m not going to bother taking a position on this argument here as it’s now settled history. Lincoln won and the Union was forced back together. However, during and after the war’s conclusion the federal government effectively disenfranchised thousands of voters, would-be public servants, and even private business owners through the use of loyalty oaths similar in meaning to our Pledge of Allegiance, by asserting the indivisibility of the Union, punishing all who took even a philosophical stand in support of the right of individual states over the Union.
Loyalty oaths are not a 19th century novelty. They have been used repeatedly throughout history; in WWI, WWII, during the Vietnam era, and even at the 2004 campaign speeches of George W. Bush. Latter-day Saints (and many other religious groups) are very accustomed to oaths and covenants. We make them weekly in sacrament, in the temple, at Boy Scout meetings, and in private prayer with our God. Oaths and pledges are not inherently evil or coercive. They can serve as a reminder of personal goals and ambitions, unite groups in a common cause, and even serve as a contractual bond for legal purposes…protecting the franchises of liberty and free enterprise. Pledges become problematic when used as a token of feigned devotion or when taken in ignorance of the obligations, hence, serving only to make the affiant a liar, or disingenuous at best, when not taken seriously.
At worst, the above phrases from the Pledge represent nationalist propaganda delivered with the stamp of government authority to a compliant audience of children educated in a mandatory school system. The idea of a union of sovereign states was as much a non-sequitor in 18th century America as federal supremacy seems to be in mainstream America today. Bellamy and other avowed socialists sought to encourage loyalty to the nation-state over the local commonwealth, God, family, or any other individual interest. There’s an axiom in public discourse that as soon as you compare anyone or anything with the Nazis, you effectively stamp out any civil debate. However, in rare cases, the comparison is apt. Observe this photograph of schoolchildren making the Bellamy Salute during the Pledge of Allegiance.
This sort of genuflection before the supreme state characterized above is no different than what happened in German schools prior to and during WWII. My grandmother grew up in Germany during this period and the pressure to join the Hitler Youth was intense. My grandmother recalls begging her mother to let her join, so great was the nationalist pride and sense of belonging. She was forbidden to do so by a wise mother who properly recognized the danger of indoctrination into a burgeoning cult of personality.
“…with liberty and justice for all.”
This sounds like another high ideal extolled in the Pledge of Allegiance. However, the continued message is that our right to liberty and justice is granted by government (at the very least as a mediator “under God”). The reality is that our government is supposed to derive its just powers from the consent of the governed, not the other way around. The order of importance should not be God, State, Individual, but God, Individual, State. Rather than pledge our allegiance to the state as the mediator of liberty and justice, we ought to be more mindful of scriptural history and give credit where credit is due (Moses 3:17, Hebrews 9:15).
According to LDS theology, justice is an eternal law that cannot be violated without throwing the universe into a tailspin. Thus, the only way to protect God’s children from damnation is to provide a Savior. Thereby man’s agency would be held inviolate while satisfying the demands of justice. The war in heaven was not fought through the artifice of a nation-state. It was a contest of ideas between those who would make us slaves and those who laid claim to liberty, and that same battle rages today. Man’s birthright to freedom is a testament to the outcome of that pre-mortal struggle. When we fail to recognize that liberty is a birthright and instead make an oath of obeisance to a substitute benefactor, we give God’s glory to another claimant, namely: Government.
It has taken me a while to outgrow that boyish enthusiasm for reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, but I’ve gradually become uncomfortable with this sort of unqualified patriotism. Having said that, I didn’t write this article to declare myself morally superior or drive a wedge between believers. Also, because I hold personal liberty in such high regard, I would never campaign against the right of any person to pledge their allegiance to the flag. I’ve simply come to the conclusion, for me, that the high ideal of patriotism implied by the act of pledging allegiance to the flag has been used in recent decades as a convenient excuse to sidestep arguments on principle and, perhaps, ignore what should be the object of attention and loyalty. I know the pledge is held sacred by many today, but consider that George Washington, Ben Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson never made a similar pledge to the flag and no one would call into question their credentials. It’s speculation, but I think I can safely say Jefferson would have even found such a thing repugnant.
The closest synonym of patriotism is nationalism. When our leaders can no longer convince the people of the merits of a cause on principle, they appeal to love of country. For example, if you’re a patriot you can’t possibly be against the Patriot Act! Charges of being “unpatriotic” effectively stamp out all rational debate. Patriotism is the reason we’re embroiled in a never-ending, worldwide war against an ill-defined enemy (see also War on Drugs, War on Poverty). How can you possibly wage war against a battle tactic? Have we lost our minds? Well, according to the Behavioral Correlates of War Project, there is a link between high levels of perceived patriotism and proclivity for war. I believe this is probably most common when nationalism has become a substitute for patriotism. Whereas true patriots made every effort to avoid conflict, even acknowledging in the Declaration of Independence the prudence of patiently suffering through usurpations for a time, before taking an oath of such gravity as to require their “Lives, Fortunes, and sacred Honor.”
The sort of patriotism our Founders exhibited has to do with protecting the life, liberty, and property of “family & fellow countrymen” (Greek: patriṓtēs, literally fellow countrymen or lineage member) against oppressive forces. This sort of zeal is not only forgivable but admirable. I have a great amount of respect for those military men and women who put their lives on the line for this cause. “Greater love hath no man than this” is an apt description of their selfless service. To the extent that a man uses their righteous desire and sworn loyalty as a tool for oppression, he alone is responsible. He is guilty of unrighteous dominion and should be removed.
“It would be a cruel God that would punish His children as moral sinner for acts done by them as the innocent instrumentalities of a sovereign who He had told them to obey and whose will they were powerless to resist.”
- Pres. David O. McKay, General Conference Address, 1942
Ron Paul lamented,
“We now live in a post-9/11 America where our government is going to make us safe no matter what it takes. We are expected to grin and bear it and adjust to every loss of our liberties in the name of patriotism and security.”
This is hardly the type of loyalty Washington would have commanded as general and president. So, until our flag and republic stand for more than false freedom and aggressive militarism, I will stand, cover my heart, and silently mourn the loss of liberty, justice, and lives that so many have fought righteously to protect. If that makes me unpatriotic…so be it.