Saturday, June 30, 2012

Why the Pledge of Allegiance in Schools Bugs Me

There are several reasons I've kept my opinion on the Pledge of Allegiance to myself, for the most part, until now.  The most important of them--and the only one that really has kept me from saying anything--is that I don't want to drag my daughter into the debate.  I use the term "debate" loosely, because most people who think the Pledge should be said in schools get extremely emotional when anyone opposes that opinion, and  mostly incapable of rational debate.  I definitely don't want my daughter, who has autism, who doesn't understand the Pledge or why people are saying it, to become the victim of the derision of these irrational individuals.  However, a couple of posts on Facebook from friends have prompted me to write this article.  One gave me a rational response to my objection; the other has not yet responded.  It's been bothering me that my child has the Pledge memorized because they were saying it over the P.A. system at school every morning (I just happened to hear it about 3 days before school was out for the summer), and I just can't stay silent anymore.

I supported Michael Newdow in his fight to get the Pledge out of schools on the basis of a First Amendment violation of the Establishment Clause, but it's so different when it's my child, and even more because my child has special needs, including a language delay, which prevents her from having everyday conversations.  She can express her needs, recite what she's memorized (she has replayed the dialogue of family gatherings in their entirety during pretend play--her memory is amazing), and she answers questions to a limited degree.  She has a tremendous vocabulary, and she has been doing well academically.  However, there is a comprehension issue that prevents her from understanding things like the Pledge of Allegiance.  It does her no good to learn it, because she has no idea what it means...and when she comes home to her atheist father and recites that we are "one nation under God", it upsets me.  I can't speak for Michael Newdow, but I'm guessing that he felt something similar in relation to his own child.  When this country is called "one nation under God", that excludes me--a law-abiding, tax-paying, working, natural-born citizen of the United States. More on this later, because at this point, I would like to break down the Pledge in its entirely.

Let's start with "I pledge allegiance..."  At what age did any of us understand what "allegiance" means?  I'm not sure when I knew it.  It was probably earlier than most, since I made a habit of reading the dictionary when I was a kid.  I was a strange child.  In any case, if someone took a quiz of elementary school children, I would bet that the percentage of them who know what the word "allegiance" means would be low.  I know no teachers in my elementary school explained any of the words in the Pledge.

Next comes " the flag of the United States of America..."  Wait, we're pledging allegiance to a colorful piece of cloth?  If I understand my history correctly, what this part of the Pledge actually means is that we pledge allegiance to the war standard of the United States--because that's what a flag used to be.  That is why the military has such reverence for it; it was the rallying point for troops and the symbol of your side.  It's an outdated reference that hasn't the meaning it had when war didn't involve shooting from a great distance or communications by radio.  Outmoded reference aside, my interpretation of this part of the Pledge means allegiance to the military.

After the flag reference comes "..and to the Republic for which it stands..."  Do I need to pledge allegiance to a country where I'm already a natural-born citizen?  As a child?  What good does it do for a child to affirm such allegiance?  Do we expect children to defect from the United States to seek political asylum?  And what on earth does "Republic" mean?  I know, but do children?  Like "allegiance", "republic" was never explained to me when I was very young.  I'm pretty sure I learned it in high school at some point--or I might have known before high school.  I just remember one teacher talking about forms of government, and that our form of government is a republic--where we elect representatives to a lawmaking body.  It is not a democracy, as many people imagine, because in a democracy, we would vote directly on everything.

Here's " nation under God..." again.   Are we one nation under one god?  I would argue that with a growing population of nonbelievers, which is at around 17% now, that we are not.  We are one nation under the Constitution, and we have been since the adoption of that document.  We are a nation of laws and not a theocracy.  The Bible is not our law book, and contrary to the beliefs of some, our laws are not based on the Bible.  I would argue that not all believers believe in the same god, or at least believe in such vastly different ways that they may as well call their god by different names, according to each religion.  What does it mean to be one nation under "God"--which I'm assuming, given that it was put into the Pledge in the 1950s, during the McCarthy era, when religiosity was a litmus test for patriotism, and being a nonbeliever meant you must be communist, that it's the Christian god--when we are not a theocracy?

Next comes the word, "indivisible".  One would hope that no state will secede again, but we are a divided country right now.  At no point in my life have I seen the country more divided on party lines--although as a student of history, I know that the Civil War is not the only time this country has been politically divided.  In any case, secession probably isn't going to happen with any state anytime soon, even though some people talk about it.  That's what this word refers to--no more talk of separation into separate countries by states.

Finally, we have "...with liberty and justice for all."  Liberty and justice for everyone sounds great, but arguments can be made that not everyone has liberty or gets proper justice in this country.  Minorities tend to be incarcerated at a greater rate than the white majority, and before someone says that it's because they commit more crime, I'm also talking about comparing people who do the same crimes and get different punishments.  There was a study NPR talked about a few years ago that talked about crimes committed by white people and crimes committed by black people.  The study demonstrated that white people received sentences that were less harsh, and sometimes got off altogether.  Is this justice?  The banks received a bailout--with people on Wall Street receiving bonus checks--after creating the biggest economic disaster since 1929 through the practice of selling toxic mortgages as prime investments and insuring them, knowing that these mortgages would fail (and yes, the did know, because they hire actuaries to calculate the statistics accurately), which homeowners saw the values of their homes crash, businesses couldn't get credit to invest in growth, and millions of people lost their jobs.  Is this justice?  I would argue also that the economic downturn hurt our liberty, because we certainly could not do as much as we wanted anymore.

Having given a breakdown of the Pledge, I would like now to explain why I stopped reciting it in high school in my junior year.  Over the P.A. system, our principal at Antwerp High School in Ohio explained that the Supreme Court ruled in 1943 that it was a violation of freedom of speech to force students to say the Pledge of Allegiance in schools.  The case--not given by the principal; I found out later--was West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette.  After I heard that information, I refused to say the Pledge in schools.  Though I knew the Court had made some bad decisions, this one was about the First Amendment--that freedom of speech could not be abridged.  I had never been given a choice regarding whether to say the Pledge or not in school, and those in authority at schools I attended before Antwerp were acting in violation of the Court's decision.  By that time, I had read the Constitution, and knew the Court had the final say in what was Constitutional and what was not--and the only ways to overturn these decisions was to amend the Constitution or have the Court itself overturn a previous decision.  To defy a Court's decision is to defy the Constitution, and how could one pledge allegiance to a country when one did not believe in the document that was its very foundation?  I found it incredibly un-American and unpatriotic to defy the Court in this fashion.

Having children recite the Pledge of Allegiance in schools serves no educational purpose, and giving children no choice in the matter is unconstitutional.  As such, reciting it over the loudspeaker and encouraging my child to join in, a child who has no understanding of the Pledge and no idea that she has a choice whether to say it or not, is unconstitutional.  The religious reference in the Pledge also should make it unconstitutional, as it is a violation of my free exercise of religion and that of my child's, which includes our choice whether or not to opt out altogether.  My child has no idea what atheism, Christianity, Islam, or Judaism are (let alone all of the other religions out there), and I have no practical way of explaining any of them to her.  Having her recite words that include her in "one nation under God" interferes with my right as a parent to raise my child free from religion.  It's indoctrination, not a patriotic act.  It is only a patriotic act to say a pledge of allegiance (and I would leave out "under God") if you understand its meaning and say it according to that awareness.