If you attended school in the United States, either public or private, between Pre-K and Twelfth Grade, you are most likely familiar with the Pledge of Allegiance. The short, poetic statement said every morning, usually prior to the morning announcements, in unison with your classmates while standing together, hands over hearts in solemn reverence. If you are reading this as an adult, you have probably never recited the Pledge since departing high school, unless you are in the process of becoming a citizen. To say the Pledge now, though a rare occurrence as an adult, feels unnecessary, half-hearted, off-putting, and just a little bizarre; a practice that is out of place for someone in their late twenties.
My most visceral memory of reciting the Pledge comes from middle school. Each grade lined up outside to listen to the morning announcements, a grindingly unbearable process performed by our student government. To begin each school day, we would stand front to back, turn to our left to face the flag, hands over our hearts, and recite those thirty-one words that we were first taught at only five or six years old. Looking back, the process was somewhat odious; standing in line, reciting an oath in unison to begin our day of approved education, hands over our hearts, the words droning into the cold, damp air. Should you break rank (goof around), you could have faced discipline from the school.
But why the need for a Pledge or Oath of Allegiance in the United States, where we are, presumably, free to live our own lives? The origin of the Pledge is one of insidious motives, which seem to be left out of the classroom, depriving our children of the opportunity to make an individual choice. Though the Pledge was officially adopted by Congress in 1942, its origin story actually begins fifty years prior in 1892.
Francis Bellamy, a noted “Christian Socialist” and brother of Edward Bellamy, the author of Looking Backward, an extremely popular socialist utopian novel, conceived of the Pledge as a means of fostering nationalist ideals within the younger generations. His belief was that the goals of authoritarian socialism could be achieved if the next generation of workers were indoctrinated early on with a near-blind love and devotion of country. Bellamy had the Pledge printed in a children’s magazine and made popular through a National Public School Celebration. The described ritual did not originally involve a hand over a heart, as we know it today, but a military salute that transitioned seamlessly into a hand being held out to the flag, a style made famous years later by Nazi Germany. Hence the change to a hand over a heart.
Years later, with the adoption of the Pledge as an official oath by Congress, schools were directed to have students recite it each school day. What we may view today as something as simple as tradition, has really become a weary ritual for children, many of whom have begun to question the practice and fight for their right to remain silent when the school day begins. Recent court cases have seen children and teenagers challenge the state’s ability to impose such an oath on them, particularly in public schools. The reasons vary, from agnostic, atheist, and irreligious students who do not wish to say “under God”, to students who wish to join the recent NFL protests. Though a court case in 1943 found that the requiring of students to recite the Pledge, especially if it went against their beliefs, was a violation of the student’s rights, some schools and states have persisted in threatening and punishing students who decline.
Earlier this year, I wrote an article in response to President Trump’s withdrawal of an invitation to the Philadelphia Eagles, citing the team’s refusal to stand for the National Anthem. Though the reports of Eagles players kneeling in protest were found to be erroneous, as most of the players only voiced their support of the protests, the photo op was still canceled. President Trump, instead, had the National Anthem performed on the White House lawn. It is this state-sanctioned patriotism, the kind that Francis Bellamy was eventually able to achieve at a frighteningly fundamental level, which is the most destructive. To face punishment for not reciting a chosen thirty-one words in a farcical expression of patriotism is straight out of the mind of Orwell and about as un-American as one can be.
If distaste for nationalism is truly alive and well in our country, it is those who choose not to participate, whether it is sanctioned by the state or expected by our society, that are the Patriots. It is those who choose to dissent, to make their own choices and express themselves according to their personal beliefs and values and not the values of the state or of the majority, that hold love of country in their hearts, because it is the individual who lives their most fulfilled life that truly embraces what it was our country was built upon: Liberty. If you do not wish to say the Pledge of Allegiance, decline. If you face punishment or ridicule for such actions, challenge them. And if your idea of liberty involves conforming to a single national identity that you’ve created in your head or have had created for you over years of indoctrination, it’s not liberty at all.
Rory Margraf is a writer whose work has been included at the Freedom Today Network, Speak Freely, and the Foundation for Economic Education, and is the author of the forthcoming children’s book, I Know My Rights. He spends his free time studying classical liberalism and how to apply those tenets to his home in the United States, Northern Ireland, and abroad.