I have recently started attending the meetings of a local, Dallas-area political club affiliated with one of the two major parties in the United States. At the beginning of all meetings, this group starts with a recitation of the “U.S. Pledge of Allegiance”. During this period, I stand in order to be polite to the other people there, but I markedly put my hands behind my back, and I do not state the Pledge. Since this would be seen by many as a “subversive” or “unpatriotic” action on my part, and in order to mentally “crystallize” my own thinking on the subject, I thought I would take a moment to explain why I do this.
The first reason I refuse to recite the pledge is because of the use of religious language (“under god”) in its text. Historically speaking, America is not “one nation under god”, which I take to mean a nation founded on Christianity or religion. America is a product of the Enlightenment. In order to understand this, some historical context is necessary. The Dark Ages represented a period of religious domination, and therefore social, economic, scientific, and political stagnation (and human misery). During that period, religious authorities controlled the moral and intellectual realm. The socio-political ream was controlled by the feudal aristocracy, supposedly ordained to rule by god, but in practice, sanctioned to practice tyranny over the minds and bodies of other men by the Church. The Dark Ages ended with the re-discovery of Classical Greek and Roman thought and philosophies, which had emphasized the value of human life in the here-and-now, reality over the supernatural, and the efficacy of the human mind to know reality.
The Enlightenment period of history, which started some time in the 1600’s, represents a naturalistic explanation for the origins of life, via the works of Charles Darwin, a rational explanation for the physical motions of the universe, via the works of Newton, and the beginnings of a secular basis for the political and social order, via the works of John Locke, and others. The founding Fathers of the United States took the ideas of Locke and other Enlightenment thinkers and used them as the intellectual basis for the 13 Republics formed soon after the American Revolution, and for the Federal Republic which today is known as the United States of America. Of paramount importance to the Founding Fathers was the right of individuals to “the pursuit of happiness”, as embodied in the Declaration of Independence.
In order for individuals to pursue their own happiness in society, some implicit understanding of the concept of individual rights is necessary. Individual rights is based in a morality of rational self-interest (or an implicit understanding of such a morality). Each individual must be free to pursue his own rational self-interest (his own happiness) in a social context. (It must be also be kept in mind that “society” is nothing more than a number of individuals, and that the individual lives in society because it maximizes his own self-interest.) Individual rights should be seen as moral principles defining and sanctioning a person’s freedom to pursue his own rational self-interest in a social context. Historically, America is the nation of the Enlightenment, and the nation founded on individual rights. It is not a society founded in a belief in the supernatural, which was the distinguishing feature of the Dark Ages. I therefore oppose the inclusion of the words “under God” in the Pledge because it is not an accurate description of America.
Even if the “under God” language were removed from the Pledge of Allegiance, I would still not want to recite it. I have several objections to its recitation. First, I question the usefulness of any ritualistic recitals such as the Pledge. If the average person reciting the Pledge of Allegiance were asked what some of the key concepts in the pledge, such as “justice” and “liberty” meant, I doubt that he could give you a coherent explanation. There was an episode of the original TV series “Star Trek”, in which the main characters visited an “alternate Earth”, where stone-age men would recite a string of incoherent sounds that sounded strangely familiar, but you couldn’t quite figure out why. At the end of the episode, it is revealed that it is the US Pledge of Allegiance. Not only have the concepts been forgotten, but even the original words have been lost by the primitives reciting them. Every time I hear people reciting the pledge, I think of this episode of “Star Trek”. A “ritual” to me is nothing more than a formulaic endeavor that has no meaning and is meant to discourage thought and individualism, and to engender a tribalistic mindset. I find this utterly incompatible with the meaning and historical significance of America.
Additionally, an analysis of the words of the pledge reveals that it is a useless exercise. America is supposed to be a Republic (or, if you prefer, a “representative democracy”). The express words of the pledge say that you are pledging allegiance to “the flag”, but a flag is just a piece of cloth, and is merely another ritualistic display, so I don’t see any point in engaging in a ritualistic chant (the pledge), to a ritualistic display (the flag). The pledge goes on to say that the flag stands for the Republic, but the purpose of government is to serve as the agent, or servant, of “the people”, in the protection of their rights to life, liberty, and property. Therefore, I, as a citizen, do not owe the government allegiance, the employees of government –our elected officials- owe allegiance to the people that they represent (which would include me). I suppose you could say that you are pledging allegiance to “the people”, but “the people” are nothing more than a number of individuals, each with a right to pursue his or her own happiness, and all individuals are “equal under the law”, so there is no person or group of persons that one should rightly “pledge allegiance” to.
You could say that one is “pledging allegiance” to the concepts of liberty and justice, which are concepts that I fully support. But, I know that I support those concepts, and I actually take action to support them by thinking and writing about them -and by doing whatever small things I can to support liberty and justice in my professional and personal life. So long as I know that I support these concepts, and I take whatever action I am able to take to advance them, why do I need to engage in a ritualistic chant to convince others that I support them? Stating that you support the concepts of liberty and justice, but taking no action to advance them is to elevate form over substance, which is contrary to the spirit of our Nation, as best exemplified by the American expression: “Talk is cheap”.