In the summer of 2002, a federal court ruled that it is unconstitutional for government-run public schools to organize and sanction mass student declarations of adherence to religious beliefs such as the idea that the United States of America exists and operates as a result of the will of God (a specific deity historically rooted only in Judaism and Christianity). Specifically, the court ruled that public schools could not take time out of the academic schedule to pressure children to recite the Pledge of Allegiance, which includes as an object of devotion and loyalty the idea of the American republic as a "nation under God".
After the ruling was announced, a horde of right-wing extremists, from conservative commentators like Rush Limbaugh and Bill O'Reilly to fundamentalist preachers like Jerry Fallwell and Pat Robertson, immediately began calling for political action to overrule the judicial finding. Many declared that a constitutional amendment requiring public schools to use a pledge to a "nation under God" would be necessary to preserve the American way of life. Others demanded that American citizens who are unwilling to participate in Christian devotions move into exile in order to preserve the purity of American culture.
With all of their demands that everybody else swear allegiance to their own sectarian ambitions for establishing a theocratic government of, by and for the priests, none of these conservative bullhorns ever bothered to explain what makes the Pledge of Allegiance so important. What is there about the Pledge of Allegiance that makes it so necessary to have every single public school student recite it word-for-word every morning, with their hands over their hearts, before they begin classes? What kinds of awful events do conservatives think would occur if children just stopped reciting the pledge?
Oh Pledge, Save Us From RUINATION!
Now, what angry, flag-waving conservatives will tell you is that if public schools stop inducing children to say the Pledge of Allegiance, as it exists without the words "under God" in it, American children will begin to show an intense disregard for their country, their teachers and even their parents. Why, if children aren't made to say the Pledge of Allegiance every morning, they'll hate their country. As a matter of fact, they won't believe in anything anymore! An entire generation of disrespectful, ungrateful children will be produced and will surely bring our nation to ruin. Without the Pledge of Allegiance and its oath to God in public schools, they argue, the United States of America would be destroyed.
It's true, I admit, that very few conservatives actually describe such fears explicitly. No, most of their arguments are much more short-sighted and inarticulate. Most conservatives merely grunt generic objections to the idea that the Pledge of Allegiance might be returned to its original version or removed at all from public schools.
They say things like:That's stupid!
It's difficult, in the face of such incoherence, to understand what makes conservatives so fearful at the idea that the words "under God" might be removed from Pledge of Allegiance. The only answer that makes sense is that the Pledge of Allegiance represents something more to them: a culture of automatic obedience in which conservative cultural values are never questioned.
The Good Old Days of the Rule of Rules
Talk to conservatives long enough, and it all comes back to this: they're still angry about the cultural changes that occurred in the second half of the 20th century. They're angry about the way that Americans who don't share their values now have the freedom to express their own values without fear of punishment. They still resent the fact that women are able to work instead of just taking care of men at home. They are still extremely uncomfortable with the presence of non-whites in areas that they say used to be good neighborhoods. They're frightened by immigrants with cultures that they don't understand. They're highly anxious that gays, lesbians and bisexuals are able to live openly, without lying about their sexuality. They are terrified that it's no longer safe to assume that an American is a Christian.
Given all these changes that they still cannot understand, conservatives cling to the myth of a Golden Age of Family Values, usually desccribed as existing in the 1940s and 1950s. Conservatives look back fondly at those times, when everybody seemed to be the same because people who were different were too terrified of their bigoted, violent neighbors to live in freedom. Basically, conservatives are most comfortable when the people around them keep quiet about their personal ideas and follow what they believe are the rules about how people are supposed to behave.
Those rules are, of course, nothing more than what conservatives feel comfortable with. In conservatives' minds, however, the rules are absolute and have always existed. They are eternal rules and exist everywhere. In the minds of conservatives, those rules exist on Mars as much as they do in Kansas. Heck, conservatives believe that God has established the same rules of culture for everyone everywhere -- even for space aliens living around Alpha Centauri, if they exist.
My, how conservatives love rules. Conservatives think that there are absolute, universal rules about clothes and hair and language and dating and fingernail length and the scheduling of the work day. To them, there's a right way and a wrong way to do everything, and they like it best when the difference between right and wrong is clear in every detail. Then, they really love it when people who do what they believe is wrong are punished.
How does this explain the ferocious attachment of the Pledge of Allegiance as it was revised in 1954? Well, the revision of the Pledge of Allegiance is an artifact for them of the apex of the Golden Age of Rules, when right was right and wrong was wrong, and those who didn't agree got a good beating for saying so.
To conservatives, the Pledge of Allegiance is an emblem of the ability of the right kind of people to make rules and force everyone else to comply whether they like it or not. The idea of young children standing in perfectly straight rows, all wearing the same kind of clothes, having only two kinds of haircuts (one for boys and one for girls), with their hands all on their hearts, saying the Pledge of Allegiance in exact unison, having memorized it even if they don't understand it, is enough to make conservatives drool with delight.
The Pledge of Allegiance is like conservative pornography: it appeals to their fantasy that all Americans are alike, that all Americans believe the same things and want the same things, and that what they want is the conservative vision of a perfect society of unquestioning obedience. The Pledge is a test of obedience to this conservative fantasy: it's not enough to just be supportive of the freedoms of the Constitution -- one has to swear an oath of loyalty to the flag. It's not enough to be patriotic -- one has to be patriotic and have the correct religious beliefs. Forcing public school children to say the Pledge of Allegiance the way that conservatives want them to say the Pledge is a way for conservatives to hold on to the hope that one day the Golden Age of Rules might be return, that everyone everywhere will someday follow their rules and the uncomfortable presence of dissent will finally be gone.
The Reality: The Golden Age of Hogwash
Of course, the conservative beliefs that cause them to so fervently defend the Pledge of Allegiance are nothing but fantasy. There are no absolute beliefs that any American society, or even any segment of American society has completely supported. Even back in the 1940s and 1950s, there was a great deal of dissent and difference within American society, even though it was brutally repressed.
Conservatives also forget that the words "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance had nothing to do with the dominance of conservative cultural standards in the 1940s and 1950s. The people who instituted the harsh conservative standards of the time had gone to school reciting the Pledge of Allegiance without the words "under God". Yet, somehow, these people did not turn into out-of-control liberals.
In fact, the words "under God" were added to the Pledge of Allegiance only in 1954, and we all know what became of the generation of children that was first exposed to this version of the Pledge. They became hippies!
When it's examined in any depth at all, the conservative attachment to the Pledge of Allegiance makes no rational sense whatsoever. The Pledge of Allegiance does not make children more patriotic, and putting the words "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance does not make children more godly. In fact, the Pledge of Allegiance does nothing to further the conservative agenda other than to reinforce the idea that blind, irrational obedience is to be encouraged.
All that the Pledge of Allegiance accomplishes is to insult the true strength of American culture: its history of inclusive democracy. The Pledge reduces good citizenship to chanting in union. The Pledge contradicts our history of cultural pluralism by insisting that everyone thinks in the same way and believes in the same things.
If we really want to encourage children to love their country, we ought to educate them about the importance of the freedoms guaranteed in the First Amendment of the Constitution, explaining that freedom of speech and separation of church and state make it possible for everyone to be a good American, no matter what their personal interests and beliefs. Instead of coercing them to chant in unison, let's help our children learn to think critically about ideas and information and show them how to intelligently express their own ideas. Promoting active, independent citizenship is the best way to ensure a healthy future for our American democracy.
The time for the Pledge of Allegiance is not over -- the Pledge was never appropriate for our democratic nation and never will be. The Pledge of Allegiance is worse than an anachronism -- it belongs to an age that never was. Doing away with the Pledge of Allegiance will not destroy our nation. On the contrary, it will finally set us free from a foolish mythology of blind conformity that is inherently undemocratic.
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