Already this month, the Pledge of Allegiance has made news headlines multiple times. The U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear the appeal of a Florida high school student who was punished for failing to swear loyalty to the national symbol, a federal judge declined to strip the words "under God" from the pledge in a New Hampshire school district, and a ten-year-old Arkansas boy was punished not for his principled refusal to recite the pledge, but for telling a pushy, uber-patriotic teacher to "jump off a bridge."It seems that America's own aging oath of fealty has a hankering for the spotlight. But do even the rebels at the root of the news stories understand why the Pledge of Allegiance is so troubling?
The Supreme Court case involved a Florida law that, since 1942, has required all school students to recite the pledge unless excused by their parents. In 2005, Cameron Frazier declined to participate in the patriotic chorus at Boynton Beach High School because of his objection to government policies and was booted from class for his trouble. He sued (PDF) and initially won, but a federal appeals court ruled that the First Amendment rights in the case belonged to parents, not children, so Frazier had no legal legs to stand on. The Supreme Court has decided to let matters rest there.
Unlike Frazier, the plaintiffs in the New Hampshire case didn't object to the whole pledge -- which is optional where they live -- but to the phrase "under God," which was added to the original 1892 text in 1954. As atheists and agnostics, they don't want officially sanctioned recitals to include religious material. The judge's dismissal of the case is now being appealed.
Will Phillips, the Arkansas ten-year-old, refused to say the pledge out of solidarity with gays and lesbians who, he believes, don't enjoy equal rights in the U.S. Unusually for somebody his age, he had the backbone to stand his ground -- and talk back -- when castigated by a teacher offended by his alleged disloyalty.
In both the Florida and Arkansas cases, the resisting students stood on principle to refuse to say the pledge. They objected to policies or perceived flaws in the country and decided, as a matter of conscience, that they couldn't ... well ... pledge allegiance.
But what if you like what the folks currently in power are doing, think that everything is going swell and approve of the wording of the oath in question? Is it OK to pledge allegiance then?
While we don't often consider what the Pledge of Allegiance actually means, it contains pretty strong words. The definition of "allegiance" in The Free Dictionary is:
1. Loyalty or the obligation of loyalty, as to a nation, sovereign, or cause.
2. The obligations of a vassal to a lord.
Even if we gloss over the feudal implications of definition two, the first definition is awfully absolute. "Loyalty or the obligation of loyalty."
Do free people really make open-ended promises of loyalty?
It's worth knowing that the author of the pledge was no particular fan of America's (imperfect) tradition of individual liberty. Francis Bellamy was a Christian socialist and a fan of a now quaint-seeming, but then popular movement to reorganize the country along quasi-military, top-down lines in which everybody would be drafted into industrial armies. The goal was sketched out in his cousin Edward Bellamy's once best-selling novel, Looking Backward (a work saved from a certain naive creepiness only by its age).
The pledge was Bellamy's small way of nudging the country away from individualism, toward authoritarian nationalism. His ideal people would pledge loyalty, and wouldn't be free.
After all, free people support governments, institutions and symbols only so long as those things respect their rights and have something positive to offer. Their support is purely conditional. When governments, institutions and symbols displease them, free people trade them in for something they hope will be better, like Americans did in 1776.
The founders weren't really "Pledge of Allegiance" sort of people.
Implicitly, people like Cameron Frazier and Will Phillips seem to understand that point, even if they don't explicitly reject the idea of an oath of loyalty. After all, when you stop reciting a pledge when policies change, it's clear that you've never really made a pledge at all, since your allegiance is conditional.
And that's the way it should be.
Those stubborn kids who refuse to stand to recite the pledge with the the rest of the class may not agree on the reasons for their refusal, but by hedging their bets on their political loyalty, they all prove themselves to be better advocates of liberty than the drones mouthing words they don't understand.