The many ways to pledge allegiance to our country
Stories such as Marissa Barnwell’s make me uncomfortable.
Marissa, a 15-yearold honor student at
River Bluff High School in Lexington, South Carolina, was hurrying to class on Nov. 29, 2022, when, she says, a teacher yelled at her, grabbed her arm, pushed her against a wall and then hustled her down to the principal’s office.
Marissa’s offense? She kept walking to class while the Pledge of Allegiance was being broadcast over the school’s loudspeaker.
Marissa told New York Times columnist Pamela Paul that when she asserted that she was exercising her First Amendment right not to participate in the pledge, the principal responded: “Don’t you love this country?”
There may be more to this story than a student’s failure to honor the Pledge of Allegiance. Marissa, who is Black, told Paul that she was inspired by pro football quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s decision to kneel during the national anthem and that she sees declining to recite the pledge as a way of saying that “I’m aware of the way American society treats Black people, that we are not all treated equally, with liberty or with justice.”
As if to illustrate this point, the security camera video of the incident appears to show white students scurrying to their classes during the pledge without incident. Marissa’s family contends that she was singled out because she is Black. If this is true, Marissa has a valid rationale for declining to recite the pledge.
But there are many reasons to object to the Pledge of Allegiance. Some citizens object to its repetitive, ritualistic recitation at the beginnings of school days, P.T.A. meetings, city council meetings and school board meetings. This overuse, they claim, drains the pledge of meaning and puts it in danger of fading into mindless groupthink.
Others recognize that the pledge is a latecomer to our patriotic lore. Can you imagine Ben Franklin leading the fractious Constitutional Convention in a rote pledge every morning, with all members obediently resting their hands over their hearts? I can’t.
In fact, the pledge was invented in 1892, largely in an effort to enforce Americanism on new waves of immigrants who were less white and more foreign than previous waves. The pledge became a litmus test for patriotism. Citizens who declined to pledge — for religious reasons, for example — were sometimes ostracized, fired from their jobs, beaten and killed.
Citizens who are atheists object to the pledge’s phrase “under God,” which was added in 1954 in a McCarthyist response to the godlessness of communism. Even religious people might object to the term “under.” If we are “under God” in the same way that Iran is “under Allah,” America has gone terribly astray.
So there are plenty of reasons why Americans may object to reciting the pledge. But the real soul of Americanism is that Americans don’t need a reason at all. A citizen should be able to decline to recite the pledge, on any occasion or on all occasions, without having her patriotism called into question.
In fact, good citizens can express allegiance to their country in many ways. For example, they could join the U.S. Navy, which is what I did. They could support their public schools. They could study our history carefully. They could vote regularly. They could commit to accepting the results of our elections. They could respect the integrity of our laws, down to their finest details.
And they could pay their taxes with a little less griping, moaning and evasion. After all, a country is no more than a group of people — brought together by geography, religion, ethnicity or, in our case, an idea — who pool their resources in order to create a society. Taxes are merely the cost of making that society work.
But the real point of living in the land of the free is that we should not have to prove our patriotic bona fides to other people.
Few things are more un-American than the coercive patriotism of those who wish to force on others their personal version of what it means to be a loyal American.
John M. Crisp, an op-ed columnist for Tribune News Service, lives in Texas and can be reached at jcrispcolumns@gmail. com.