Due to a combination of hybrid learning, the pandemic, and other factors, the Pledge of Allegiance was not recited on a daily basis last year. However, this year, alongside the normal high school schedule, the daily recitation of the pledge during Block A has resumed this pre-pandemic norm.
The Pledge of Allegiance has long been revered as an embodiment of core American values. Yet by its very nature, the pledge is an assault on the principles of freedom and liberty espoused by the Founding Fathers and the Constitution, and should be abolished, whether compulsory or not.
Since its very inception, the pledge has been subject to numerous controversies, including several legal disputes reaching the Supreme Court. The pledge was written in 1892 by Francis Bellamy, a socialist minister, to commemorate Columbus Day, a holiday that the school no longer observes due to Columbus’ own dubious history.
Soon, the pledge gained national prominence, with many schools making it mandatory for their students. In 1943, in the case West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette, the Supreme Court ruled that “the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment prohibits public schools from forcing students to salute the American flag and say the Pledge of Allegiance.”
Representing the majority’s opinion, Justice Robert Jackson wrote, “If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein.”
From 1943 to the present day, though, the Supreme Court has left the legality of the pledge largely in question, avoiding a direct confrontation on whether the existence of the pledge itself is constitutional. Many states, including Massachusetts, have even created state laws that require schools to hold daily recitations of the Pledge of Allegiance.
Regardless of the Supreme Court’s ambivalence, this statutory recitation, which includes the phrase “under God,” directly violates the right to freedom of religion. The First Amendment of the US Constitution states that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.” In other words, no government institution, including public schools, can unduly advance, inhibit, or excessively involve with religion.
For example, in 1962, the Supreme Court ruled that it is unconstitutional for public schools to hold prayers, even if they are supposedly voluntary, upholding this constitutional principle. On the same basis of separating the state from religion, public schools should not recite the words “under God.”
The ostensibly non-compulsory nature of the pledge does not dismiss its flagrant violation of the Constitution, and the Supreme Court’s own precedent established the irrelevance of the students’ volition in the matter. Even if the government does not force individual students to recite the pledge, the government’s stipulation for schools to say the phrase “under God” is, in and of itself, a promotion and endorsement of monotheistic religions. Whether voluntary or not for students, the pledge is the same prescription of orthodoxy that Justice Jackson rejected.
The phrase “under God” was only added to the Pledge of Allegiance in 1954 to distinguish America from the largely atheistic Soviet Union, over a decade after West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette. The problem with the Pledge of Allegiance is thus rooted far deeper than just the phrase “under God.”
Justice Jackson outlined that the government may not establish certain political views to be orthodox, and that chief among the vaunted American liberties is the freedom to express one’s ideas without the government’s interference. The pledge is a political statement expressing one’s patriotism and renouncing self-determination; ergo, the stipulation of the pledge is the subliminal imposition of the government’s will through nationalistic indoctrination, not dissimilar from pledges utilitzed by totalitarian states such as Nazi Germany to foster subservience in the populace. Until the onset of the Second World War, Bellamy’s original pledge even featured a hand salute that appears indistinguishable from the Nazi salute.
A citizen’s rights to self-determination and thinking beyond the demands of the state are also rooted in the very creation of American democracy. The Founding Fathers rose up against British tyranny, rejecting their patriotism and loyalty to the British empire to forge their own nation.
Despite the pledge’s abnegations of core American values, some still believe in the importance of the flag’s deeper message. In a time of such political turbulence and polarization, many Americans find solace in the pledge’s idea of unity and nationalism. They see the pledge as instilling the core value of patriotism in the American youth, not as indoctrination.
“I think it’s valuable to stop every morning to be reminded that we’re part of something bigger than ourselves, and I don’t just mean the school community. I mean the nation, especially right now in this time where there’s such great division,” said Dr. Jamie Chisum, principal of the high school. “At the end of the day, or the beginning of the day in this case, I think it’s important that we can remind ourselves that we are all one people.”
However, unity, patriotism, and nationalism remain political ideologies, regardless of popularity. The underlying principle behind the First Amendment is the belief that, although a majority may dictate legislation, the majority cannot dictate the truth. Throughout history, from Galileo to Martin Luther King, the truth has come from the minority. Whether most Americans believe in self-determination or not, the government cannot undermine the principle of free thought, especially in the impressionable minds of youth.
Some at the school are still bothered by the pledge’s message.
“My problem with the pledge philosophically is just the idea that you have to give yourself to your state in a mandatory sort of way, which cheapens the sacrifice of those who make that decision voluntarily,” said Mr. Kyle Gekopi, a social studies teacher at the high school.
Unity achieved under coercion is not true unity but the simulation of unity, which is at the cost of the tenets of American democracy. The very patriotic values claimed to be strengthened by the pledge are weakened by its compulsory nature. The Pledge of Allegiance is the instrument of the very same tyranny that democracy seeks to prevent.
One thought on “Why we should abolish the Pledge of Allegiance in public schools”
The proposal that the the Pledge of Allegiance should be dropped is just needlessly aggravating many American citizens. Instead I suggest it be amended by the insertion of the phrase “…and to its democratic institutions…” to rebut criminality of the sort that took place on 6 January 2021 in Washington D.C.
As democracy is under threat in the US as never before the interesting theoretical arguments you raise should be left for another day. Instead the total focus should be on defending democracy.
Best wishes and keep up your writing as it’s a contribution to public discourse.