What Does It Mean to Pledge Allegiance to the Flag of the United States of America?

in Political Thought by

What I’m about to say is going to anger a lot of people. And I’ve held my tongue (or, rather, my typing fingers) because of that—I’m at heart a people-pleaser, and I just want everyone to be happy. But I can’t always make that happen and still speak my truth.

Last week my family and I (me, my husband, and our two kids, aged six and four) were in an airport, waiting to board our connecting flight as we traveled home after visiting my in-laws. My children saw some American flags while we were sitting at the gate and began to recite the Pledge of Allegiance together.

A couple of minutes later a man came over and handed us $20 and said he’d like to buy our drinks on the plane. We looked at him confused—why? “I’m so happy to hear your kids reciting the Pledge of Allegiance. I think it’s great. I’m active military, so it means a lot to me.”

We tried to refuse the money—my husband makes a good salary, and if anything, WE should be buying HIM a drink on the plane because he’s the one serving our country in such a fundamental and possibly ultimately sacrificial way. But he insisted we take his money. Hesitantly, I put it in my back pocket, and the man went to board the plane (active military are one of the first groups to board).

My husband turned to me and said, “I feel bad taking his money. We didn’t even teach them the Pledge of Allegiance.”

This is true: they learned it at school. To be clear, we didn’t choose to NOT teach them the Pledge of Allegiance—it’s just not something we’ve thought to prioritize in the limited time we get with our kids (we both work full time).

But the thing is: I do have a little bit of an issue with making kids pledge allegiance to a flag.

And before anyone starts leaving angry comments below, let me break this down to help you understand why.

“I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America and to the republic for which it stands, one nation under God,[*] indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”
—The Pledge of Allegiance, 1954–present
“I pledge allegiance to the Flag of the United States of America and to the Republic for which it stands, one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”
—The Pledge of Allegiance, 1923–1954
“I pledge allegiance to my Flag and to the Republic for which it stands, one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”
—The Pledge of Allegiance, 1892–1923

To me, making a pledge—a binding promise—of allegiance—devotion and loyalty—is a serious thing. It is personal because it binds the person to that which they pledge. Any pledge of allegiance should be made with a full understanding of what it means—its significance, what it asks and demands of a person.

A pledge of allegiance should be made thoughtfully, carefully, without being compelled to do so, and with the ability to comprehend what that pledge entails.

My kids have no idea what they’re saying when they say those words. They have not been taught what this pledge means. No one has talked to them about the significance of a pledge or of allegiance. And certainly no one has talked to them about what is meant when we make this pledge of allegiance to a flag.

Not a person. Not an ideal. A flag. A symbol. And a nebulous one at that.

What is the American flag a symbol of? The easy answer, of course, is the United States of America. But why should a person make the individual choice to bind themselves in loyalty to the United States of America? What about America is so special that we, as individuals, should not only pledge our allegiance to it but also compel our children to do so without even giving them an understanding or a choice of what we are asking of them?

What is America? What does it mean? Is it a set of values? Is it the American people? Is it our geographic territory? Is it our shared history?

What are we promising to remain loyal to? What does this promise demand of us?

And should we all agree on what we mean when we make this pledge?

Is it the values and guidelines set forth by our founding documents of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights?

If so, I can get behind that. If that’s what we mean, yes, I will pledge to uphold and defend the Constitution and Bill of Rights every day of my life. Happily. Proudly.

These guidelines and statements and structures set forth a foundation of values, rights, and a relationship between a people and their government that I believe in, even as they are in places vague and open for interpretation—they remain living documents that help us stay on a path of democracy and liberty even as our world changes and evolves. They are the blueprint for our national community, our sense of what we mean when stand for our country and when we stand together as a country.

And this is why I’m particularly bothered by recent comments by Donald Trump, who lamented that our constitutional system of checks and balances is hindering his ability to efficiently do what he wants to do, saying, “It’s an archaic system. . . . It’s a really bad thing for the country.”

Yes, that’s right, folks: the man who has taken an oath (a pledge) to “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States” just said that our Constitution is bad for America. If you’re angry at me for questioning what it means to pledge allegiance to a flag (and compelling our children to do so without first ensuring that they understand what they are pledging) but you are not completely outraged by Trump’s comments here, then I’d like you to do some soul searching, because this is a contradiction.

The Constitution established “the Republic for which it [the Flag of United States of America] stands.” If we have willingly and thoughtfully made the Pledge of Allegiance, then we need to be aware that what we have pledged allegiance to may need defending right now from the man who may seek to break his own presidential oath.

Does the flag symbolize a love of the American people?

You know what? I can get behind that too. I don’t agree with everyone in the United States, but I believe all people (even non-Americans) have the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. I believe we all have a right to live with dignity and kindness and compassion. I believe in community and caring for one another. I believe all people deserve love, regardless of their political views, their family background, their religion (or lack thereof), their ethnic and/or racial heritage—all of it. I hold a general love for all people based solely on their humanity, and this, of course, includes all Americans.

But I look around at all the people who proudly make the Pledge of Allegiance and who believe that we should compel children to recite it beginning as soon as they can ape the words—and I don’t believe all Pledge lovers and defenders actually love and are willing to defend ALL Americans.

On every kind of media, I see people all too willing to walk down the path that our corporate propagandists and political party leaders are leading us down, paths that divide us and encourage us to hate each other, blame each other, and see each other as fundamentally wrong, as deficient, as less worthy of kindness, compassion, understanding, empathy, and basic human dignity.

I see people shrugging with indifference or even scowling in contempt as fellow Americans are killed and beaten without justice or humanity, as entire communities are abandoned economically and culturally and then decimated by mass incarceration and addiction, as millions of people struggle to make ends meet, provide shelter and food and healthcare for their families, and face impossible choices for their very survival.

How can anyone love America while they also hate or are indifferent to Americans?

Are we “one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all?” Are we really?

Are we pledging allegiance to this great land we call America?

We should definitely do that. I support that all the way. Yes, please, let’s pledge allegiance to this land.

Let’s vow to defend and protect our land, our water, our biodiversity, our air. Because it is amazing. And we love it. As well we should. Because we live here and depend upon this land and water and air for our very survival, as do the generations that will (hopefully) follow us.

This geographic territory that makes up what we and the world demarcate as the United States of America is our country. The country we claim to love. And we treat it like shit and are destroying it.

We are destroying our own country.

We are destroying our—the American people’s (see above)—ability to survive. To eat healthy food. To breathe clean air. To drink potable water. To not be ravaged by devastating storms and debilitating droughts and destructive fires. To not have our land taken by the rising sea.

How can anyone love America and not care about this land?

What about our shared history?

This is a hard one.

The republic of the United States of America has a great and proud history of grit and determination and idealism made law. We fought for our freedom from an oppressive, parasitic monarchy. We built this nation from the ground up. We took on massive projects that transformed our ability to trade, to move around this country and explore, to build a strong and thriving economy. We were instrumental in defeating fascism that threatened to take over the world, and we then helped rebuild economies globally, not just for our allies but also for those we vanquished. We should all be proud of our country for these things.

But we also built this country through the theft of its land from its native people, a theft that was made possible through genocide, destroying families and communities and cultures. And we continue to steal from and poison and disparage Native Americans.

We built this country and its thriving economy through the abduction, cruel and inhumane subjugation, bondage, and forced servitude of people from another land, which saw the murder of millions of Africans through the slave trade; the rape of millions of women; the physical, emotional, mental, cultural, and economic abuse of generations of black people, abuse that continues to this day in different, evolving forms.

We built this country while we subjugated and devalued an entire gender, reduced them to property, and denied their political voice until relatively recently (it is not yet a century now that women have had the right to vote). And we continue to treat women, their work, their contributions, their voices, their bodies as inferior, as less worthy, as objects to be used and disposed of as the patriarchy sees fit.

I could go on. But the point is: How do we pledge allegiance to a country that is both so great while also so flawed?

Someone once told me that if all of us were perfect, there would be no need for love.

To love America is to embrace our shared history—our imperfect legacy. It is to be proud of when we did good, but it is also to listen with all of our being to those who ask us to acknowledge and own when we failed humanity, when we ignored our own values, as set forth by our Constitution and Bill of Rights. To love America is both to honor our accomplishments as well as to always actively remember and seek to correct our failures of humanity and morality.

When I make the Pledge of Allegiance, this is also what I am promising to do.

I only hope that when we all make this pledge, we think about what it means to us. What does that flag symbolize for each of us? What are we promising of ourselves when we take this oath of loyalty?

What are you willing to do to uphold your pledge of allegiance?

To finish the story that began this post: my husband and I never purchased drinks on the plane—because it was a short flight, it was late at night, and we needed our energy to get our tired kids through the airport, to baggage claim, and then to the car. The man who gave us the money turned out to be sitting in the row in front of me, and I tried to give it back to him: as I said, we didn’t need the money, and I’m sure he needed it more than we did. But he refused. A few days later, still feeling bad for taking that money, I donated it plus another $20 to Wounded Warrior Project. And then I started writing this post.

I agree with him that the Pledge of Allegiance should be taken seriously, and to me this means that it should be respected, that it should be made with thought and care and understanding. I don’t think children should be compelled to take a pledge they don’t comprehend; instead I think we should teach them about it and allow them to participate when they feel they are ready. Because then it will mean something to them. Then it will be real and not just a bunch of words strung together because an authority figure tells us to say them.

After all, wasn’t the Revolutionary War fought in resistance to an authority figure making us do things because he said so?

[*] Note that “under God” was not added until 1954. I am not religious, so when I make the Pledge of Allegiance, I simply don’t say that part, and I know that my pledge doesn’t need it. The First Amendment of the Bill of Rights, which is part of what I am pledging my allegiance to, tells us that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.” This tells me that people have the right not only to practice whatever faith they believe in but also to not practice a faith if they do not believe. For this reason, I object to this later addition to the Pledge of Allegiance because it is in contradiction to one of the components of what we are pledging allegiance to. It should also be noted that one religious faith, Quakers, do not allow the taking of a pledge, period. And the Bill of Rights protects their right to not pledge allegiance.

Josephine Moore is a writer, editor, and political activist living in Upstate New York. After representing Bernie Sanders as a delegate at the 2016 Democratic National Convention, she continues her work to organize progressives to come together to effect progressive change in our political system. She has two children, two dogs, two cats, only one husband (thank goodness), and a whole lotta opinions.

4 Comments

  1. I was 9 when the “under God” phrase was added. I resented it then and I still resent it. And never say it even though I do believe in some higher power. Since all my connection, like never before, through the Bernie Sanders campaign (fellow delegate with Josie) and beyond, I, too have been questioning this pledge. I’ve been pretty angry and am not sure if I want to pledge allegiance to what I see. Maybe it’s time to rewrite our “pledge” and rethink how it is taught and adhered to.
    So, Josie… want to form a Pledge Rewrite committee?
    And, hey Josie, you need to update your bio info. I wish you still lived Upstate NY!

  2. * Religious people really should have a conflict with the words “Under God” as well. They were added during one of the countries darkest moments, The McCarthy era of judgementalism, which in itself, runs contrary to Christian values. It was a reference to the judgement of those “Godless commies”, a further judgement and bearing of false testimony against fellow humans. The reason our founders seperated church from state was not just to protect government from religion, but more importantly, to protect religion from government.

    That said, Francis Bellamy, the original author of the 1st version of the Pledge, was a socialist pastor.

    Next- Independence Day- which most nationalistic flag wavers refer to as “The 4th of July” as they claim patriotism, but also couldn’t tell you where the concept of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness was written.

    Then we can cover Columbus day, unless of course we discuss Lincoln’s most famous of speeches that defined “government of the people, by the people, and for the people”, words that mean the same as “democratic socialism.”

    You’d probably enjoy Jeff Feldman’s book about framing and how well the founders used language as a tool that ushered in so much revolutionary change.

  3. I’m glad your children learned the pledge Josie. We are far from perfect as a nation but my read is, we have, as a diverse nation, over a long, bumpy road, tried to move forward. Great piece. (ps: on the God thing…I have always viewed that as meaning “a higher purpose” and not specific to religion…when I think of it that way I have no problem saying it. No-one should portend to think they know what that purpose is except that it is good.)

  4. I am also glad your children learned the pledge. Yet, I agree with each of your points, Josie. Here’s a suggestion. What if all four of you wrote a pledge for your family? I’d like to be at that family meeting. That could easily be age appropriate and at the same time, encourage your children to expand their world beyond themselves. Reinforcing what you already teach them, I’m sure.

    In the sixties, my mom would recite something that went around then, a pledge to rainbows, etc.

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