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A few years ago, I performed a civic act that few Americans have the nerve to suffer–I attended a city council meeting. As I waited for the proceedings to begin, I was glad I had brought something to read. The council members filed in and opened the proceedings with a recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance. Since high school, I have had little interest in this ritual (I don’t stand for the National Anthem at ball games, either), so I remained seated, hoping there would be a few other like-minded Americans at the council meeting. Instead, like something out of The Manchurian Candidate, the few hundred people (the high turnout–as well as my presence–was due to a contentious zoning issue before the council) stood and turned in lockstep to face the American flag in the corner of the room. I sat there very uncomfortably, feeling strongly compelled to join in. Though it did feel odd to have a roomful of people “praying” in my general direction (the flag was behind me), I managed to stay seated.
The current controversy over the phrase “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance belies a bigger issue that is being lost in much of the accompanying rhetoric: the rote recitation of the Pledge is un-Christian, un-American, and self-contradictory.
Most who recite the Pledge–and certainly those who added the phrase “under God” in 1954–are referring to the Judeo-Christian deity. The First Commandment of the Judeo-Christian scripture tells us that the deity is “a jealous God” and that we are to have “no other Gods before” him. (This is the Protestant and Hebrew interpretation of the Commandment; raised Catholic, our God commanded, “Thou shalt not have strange gods before me,” leading one to wonder if familiar gods would be acceptable.) While we could discuss the incongruity of a monotheistic deity who is jealous of other deities, the point seems to be that worship of anything other than the Supreme Being could get you into a lot of trouble. When American Christians say, “I Pledge Allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the Republic for which it stands,” there seems to be a definite element of worship for false idols, namely, the American flag and the American Republic. While it can be argued that both of these items are really wonderful things, they certainly are not God, and perhaps the injunction against idol worship should give Christians and Jews greater pause. After all, this was the objection of Jehovah’s Witnesses who, even before “under God” was inserted in the Pledge, challenged compulsory recitation because they felt it came perilously close to idolatry. Even if a Christian or Jew could argue that the pledge is not idolatrous, doesn’t the placement of the prohibition (indeed it is the First Commandment) and the deity’s self-qualification as a “jealous God,” make erring on the side of caution the better part of wisdom?
The Pledge is also un-American. For those who have never seen the film The Manchurian Candidate (referenced above), it is the story of American POWs in Korea who are brainwashed by dastardly Communists to commit political assassination by surreptitious command once back in the US. One of the most haunting scenes of the movie is when, for demonstrative purposes, the trained assassin strangles one of his fellow POWs. As the Communist military leaders look on, the other POWs sit calmly, smoking cigarettes, seemingly indifferent to the brutal murder of their friend. This film highlights a characteristic of many totalitarian societies: the blind obedience to the state that can be engendered in groups. One of the greatest aspects of the US is that it is, ostensibly, not a totalitarian society. We don’t give Nazi salutes to our leaders. We don’t wave little red books containing the wisdom of our founders. The conformity that does exist is supposedly for the betterment of society (paying taxes, compulsory education, traffic laws), rather than the ego of an oligarchy. During my Catholic elementary school education, the nuns would often lament that the poor children in the Soviet Union would be made to “pray to” the Communist leaders. These nuns would then lead us in the Pledge of Allegiance, which we would recite in the same dull monotone with which we often said standard prayers. Even at this young age, I felt there was something untoward about mindlessly repeating words that few of my classmates even understood.
Which brings us to the self-contradictory nature of the Pledge. “. . . One nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” How much “liberty” did I have at the city council meeting mentioned above? As a thirty-year-old man, I felt significant, though unspoken, pressure to conform to the group and recite the Pledge; I can only imagine the stress put on an elementary school student to be “patriotic.” A fair conclusion from this experience would seem to be that while we have liberty in this country, we probably shouldn’t use it.
This Independence Day, it would be sincerely refreshing if American practice matched American rhetoric. As we celebrate a day on which a group of people chose to break from the crowd, can’t we also honor those patriots who live up to the spirit of the Pledge of Allegiance by being uncomfortable at its conformist recitation?
Tom Gorman is a writer living in Pasadena, California. He welcomes comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.