Among the exceptional things about America is that, along with North Korea, we are one of a very few nations that have our schools begin the day with a pledge of allegiance.
Unlike North Korea, however, our pledge also includes a reference to God. We do enjoy pretending all of this is optional because of “rights,” just as we pretend that the reference to God is perfectly “OK” in a nation that claims it is secular.
(Fun Thing: Have your child substitute “Allah” for “God” in the pledge at school and see what happens!)
The pledge is a short expression of allegiance to the United States. Originally written in 1887, Congress formally adopted it as the official pledge in 1942 as the U.S. was entering WWII. On Flag Day 1954 the words “under God” were added, in time of the Cold War and McCarthyism.
In signing the words “under God” into law, President Dwight Eisenhower said:
“From this day forward, the millions of our schoolchildren will daily proclaim in every city and town, every village and rural schoolhouse, the dedication of our nation and our people to the Almighty… In this way we are reaffirming the transcendence of religious faith in America’s heritage and future; in this way we shall constantly strengthen those spiritual weapons which forever will be our country’s most powerful resource, in peace or in war.”
The pledge is recited out loud, typically with one’s hand over one’s heart. Want an example of how the pledge is used as a vehicle for a whole range of “patriotic” indoctrination? Here.
The Right Not to Pledge
The most common place for reciting the pledge is in public schools. Teacher’s are not required, and in most cases do not, inform little kids they have a right to not participate.
Most schools’ policy does allow students who otherwise learn about their rights outside of class to refrain from participating as long as they don’t interfere with other kids from doing so, generally interpreted as not protesting or acting in an affirmative manner and just standing with their damn mouths shut. There is a wide dollop of leeway on what constitutes “disruptive behavior,” as seen recently in the fury over some people’s decision to take a knee during the playing of the national anthem, another American ritual.
This is all more or less in line with the landmark 1943 Supreme Court ruling in West Virginia Board of Education v. Barnette, where the justices voted 6-3 on behalf of Jehovah’s Witnesses refusing to stand for the pledge on religious grounds. The Court held that expelling the students, as was done in a West Virginia school, violated their First and Fourteenth Amendment rights.
Justice Robert Jackson, who wrote the opinion, didn’t believe the government, including school officials, was constitutionally allowed to use punishments to make people say things they don’t mean:
“To sustain the compulsory flag salute, we are required to say that a Bill of Rights which guards the individual’s right to speak his own mind left it open to public authorities to compel him to utter what is not in his mind.”
Not every justice on the court agreed, however, Justice Felix Frankfurter wrote in dissent “freedom of religion did not allow individuals to break laws simply because of religious conscience… Otherwise each individual could set up his own censor against obedience to laws conscientiously deemed for the public good by those whose business it is to make laws.”
And an exceptional free nation certainly could not have citizens running amok acting on their consciences.
So How’s That Working Out for Ya?
In late October, only 73 years after the Supreme Court decision, word apparently has not yet reached Florida, because a middle schooler in Tampa was kicked out of the classroom after refusing to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance.
Mark Dawson was yelled at by his teacher and made to leave the classroom after he refused to stand for the daily pledge at the ironically-named Liberty Middle School. A school spokesperson quickly admitted the teacher didn’t know the school district’s policy — as well as the actual Constitution of these United States — allowed for Dawson’s behavior.
Or did they?
Florida state law actually requires students to get written permission from parents if they want to abstain from the pledge.
Although the Supreme Court holds that the Bill of Rights applies to minors, Florida says well, it sort of doesn’t. Florida state courts have upheld the local law by technically treating the matter as an issue of parental authority, as granted or withheld by the state legislature. The law operates under the assumption parents would make their kids stand for the pledge if they happened to be in the classroom at the time.
Florida’s actions have not yet been tested before the Supreme Court.
Do Other Countries Say Some Sort of Pledge of Allegiance in School?
Despite America being “the essential nation” who serves as that “shining city on the hill” (we do have a lot of those kinds of expressions, don’t we?), America more or less stands alone in sort-of, kind-of, compelling/pressuring kids into stating out loud in the presence of their peers allegiance to the nation.
North Korea also has its school kids say a daily pledge, but that’s a bad thing. The Guardian described the scene as:
“They are barely seven years old, but these glum-looking children are already being drafted into a tyrannical regime hell bent on waging nuclear war with the world. Standing in arrow-straight rows, their faces are hardly the picture of happiness as they are forced to pledge their allegiance to North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un and call him ‘father’.”
Yeah, yeah, I get it, different words, but basically the same idea: a stated pledge to a national symbol. Only kids in North Korea aren’t happy because, whatever, like the US, their country has nuclear weapons.
Fun Fact: South Korea has a pledge, too. But not Canada, Britain, France or the other democracies of Europe.
Peter Van Buren blew the whistle on State Department waste and mismanagement during Iraqi reconstruction in his first book, We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People. His latest book is Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the #99 Percent. Reprinted from the his blog with permission.