The pledge of allegiance must go: A daily loyalty oath has become a toxic, nationalistic ritual
The final straw came when a teacher accused Alicia, a high school sophomore, of treason.
Alicia (not her real name) hardly comes across as subversive. She’s not one of those kids who is intrigued by anti-American propaganda from ISIS, for example, nor is she one who has been duped by homegrown anti-government groups calling for a citizens’ rebellion. She’s pretty much an ordinary, intelligent teenager—interested in politics, current events and government, but hardly a fringe radical.
Her offense in the eyes of her homeroom teacher, however, was that she chose to sit out the Pledge of Allegiance. This act, for Alicia and countless other young Americans, has brought on the wrath of authority, with teachers and school administrators unleashing mean-spirited accusations and hostility toward students who dare to question the wisdom of a daily loyalty oath. We may be a free country, but any kid who chooses to sit out the collective exercise of exalting America runs a risk of official ostracization.
I’ve spent the last year interacting with kids who have participated in the American Humanist Association’s boycott of the Pledge of Allegiance. The boycott is intended to raise awareness of the fact that the pledge, which was originally scripted by a magazine editor in 1892, did not include the words “under God” until 1954. The insertion of those two words has long irritated many Americans, particularly those who reject the notion of tying patriotism to God-belief, and the AHA’s boycott has been an effective strategy for educating many, especially young people, on the issue.
The Supreme Court in 1943 ruled that constitutional free speech principles guarantee public school children the right to opt out of the pledge, but many school officials need to be reminded of that precedent. As such, the AHA’s legal center, which I direct, spends lots of time helping kids whose teachers don’t respect the non participation right.
And there are many of them.
In fact, the intolerance shown toward nonparticipating kids is stunning, enough to make one realize that the daily pledge exercise is far from a benign, unifying activity that instills healthy values. On the contrary, by the actions frequently displayed toward pledge nonparticipants by teachers and sometimes students, any objective observer would quickly conclude that the exercise is downright toxic, a nationalistic ritual that too often instills a venomous attitude of chauvinism.
We see several recurring themes in the attacks on pledge dissenters. Though some teachers will outright lie and tell students that participation is mandatory under law, most will acknowledge the voluntariness of pledge participation if confronted with a student who seems to know his or her rights. Still, however, teachers will often respond with the accusation that nonparticipation is “disrespectful.” Yet it’s not always clear who is being “disrespected” if a child opts out. The teacher? The class? The country?
Frequently the teacher will answer that question by saying that nonparticipation is disrespectful of the troops, as if any student not taking a daily loyalty oath—something no other developed country expects from its youth—is thumbing her nose at America’s military men and women. Here we see how the pledge is a tool of American militarism, with the clear message: stand each day and pledge allegiance, kids, because our fighting men and women are out there protecting your freedoms. Not surprisingly, no public school offers a daily analysis of the country’s foreign policy to offset this not-so-subtle message of nationalism and militarism.