Friday, October 03, 2014

Rewriting the US Pledge of Allegiance

The Humanist, a publication of the American Humanist Association, is having a contest to rewrite the US pledge of allegiance.

I have never, and I mean never, been a fan of the pledge. I first encountered the pledge in kindergarten where, along with all the other five-year-olds I was informed that I would stand every morning, face the flag in the corner of the room and recite:
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 phrase "under God" sits poorly with most non-theists. I also never understood the point of pledging allegiance to a flag per se.

The pledge itself contains a respectable amount of baggage for such a short sentence. "one Nation" and "indivisible" are clear reflections of their time. The pledge was written to coincide with the quadcentennial of Columbus' initial landing in New World on an unknown island in The Bahamas. America in 1892 was still reeling from the society-wide shock of the Civil War, the economic rebuilding of the American South and the migration of both native Americans and former slaves into some semblance of citizenship. Although the direct memories of the war were fading from living memory and US patriotism was rising to the crescendo that would culminate in the Spanish-American War, no educated person of the time could have mistaken the words "one Nation" and "indivisible" as meaning anything other than "Let us never again fight a civil war".

The contentious phrase "under God" was snuck into the pledge in 1954 after six years of agitation from various groups of religious bent including both the Sons and the Daughters of the American Revolution, the Knights of Columbus and the organizers of the National Prayer Breakfast.

Arguably (because I will argue it) the best words in the pledge are "with liberty and justice for all". These simple words betray a social commitment that was extreme from the day they were written. Socialist, Baptist minister and pledge creator Francis Bellamy originally wanted to include the words "equality" and "fraternity" in the pledge. They must remind one of the Enlightenment-era motto of the French Revolution (and the current national motto of both France and the Republic of Haiti): Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité. Fear of extending the franchise to women, African Americans and other marginalized people would have kept the pledge from wide adoption had those words been included. Bellamy successfully conned his ship of patriotism past the shoals of overt prejudice.

The America of today may not be less prejudiced but it is certainly more multicultural. Most of the adults of the country's roughly 12% African American and 16% Hispanic or Latino population have the ability to vote, as do most of the 5% of adults of Asian decent. The total population is also more than five times the size of the country in the 1890s.

How can we repair the current pledge? I doubt we can. The fractious nature of the US Congress, especially the House of Representatives, and the vocalism of our religious fellow citizens make any agreement to change the pledge elusive. Some have argued that we should not pledge at all, to a country or to a god. That need not stop a reasonable discourse. It is just likely to stop an official agreement.

My own suggestion is to get back to basics. The original purpose of the pledge was to "instill into the minds of our American youth a love for their country and the principles on which it was founded". This is social engineering if I have ever heard it. Call it instilling patriotism in the new generation or mindwashing or anything else, it is absolutely an explicit form of cultural transmission. So what form of cultural transmission should we wish for?

I would love to get any idea of someone else's god out of the picture. Religion is best when it is silent in public. Nationalism, too, does not tend to serve us well as it leads us into wars that may not need to be fought.

The Preamble to the US Constitution is, for me, one of the cleanest statements of the goals of a secular society in which citizens have liberty to pursue their own interests as long as the general welfare is not infringed. My right to swing my arm, as my father would say, ends at the tip of your nose.

I therefore propose the following restatement of the US pledge of allegiance:
I pledge to work for a more perfect union, the establishment of justice, the insurance of domestic tranquility, the provision for common defense and the promotion of general welfare in order to secure the blessings of liberty for ourselves and our posterity.

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