I am one of those parents who walk their kids into school each morning. My house is on the school’s property line, so it’s convenient enough to take them to their classroom. It’s not that I’m concerned about my kids’ safety — I could stand in my backyard and see my second grader and twin kindergarteners make it into the building — it’s just that all of my kids still like that I enter the school with them. And I know this will end soon enough, so I am happy to squeeze in one more hug before we all separate for the day.
Because I walk them to their classrooms, I’m usually walking through the halls, dodging late comers racing in the opposite direction, when I hear the bell chime. The principal greets the school and asks everyone to rise for the saying of the Pledge of Allegiance. Kids, teachers, and parents stop and locate an American flag as they place their right hand over their chest.
Everyone except me, that is. I keep walking. My arms stay by my sides.
For those few minutes, the school is filled with over 200 children’s voices reciting a poem they do not understand, saying words they can’t pronounce.
I don’t join in. And quite frankly, I am hard-pressed to understand why we bother with this ritual every morning at all.
The version of the Pledge of Allegiance were most familiar with was originally written by Francis Bellamy in 1892. It was originally this: “I pledge allegiance to my flag and to the Republic for which it stands—one Nation indivisible—with liberty and justice for all.”
It hasn’t changed much over time, but in 1954 the final adjustment of adding “under God” was made after the Knights of Columbus pushed Congress to make the change.
When the bill to reword the Pledge was signed into law, President Eisenhower said this: “From this day forward, the millions of our school children will daily proclaim in every city and town, every village and rural school house, the dedication of our nation and our people to the Almighty…. In this way we are reaffirming the transcendence of religious faith in America’s heritage and future; in this way we shall constantly strengthen those spiritual weapons which forever will be our country’s most powerful resource, in peace or in war.”
So, the Pledge of Allegiance has gone from loyalty to our country and one another to the loyalty of one God and one religion in which people think America was built on?
No. Absolutely not.
America was built on the back of immigrants. It was built on pioneers and engineers and innovators. It was built on refugees and dreamers. It was built on the diversity of our beliefs—religious, political, and social. America is not indivisible, but the common thread of wanting a life of equity and freedom helps us pull the stitches of our country’s fabric tighter.
The problem is that we often disagree on what makes America great. America feels like it is tearing at the seams right now; liberty and justice for all is not a celebrated concept in our country. The Pledge of Allegiance feels like bullshit when there are people being killed for the color of their skin, for the god they love, for the way the love, or for the way they identify.
It feels like bullshit when sexual assault survivors are not believed and when one has to watch her abuser be confirmed to the Supreme Court, breaking her heart all over again as he gets the freedom to influence the fate of our nation while she hides from death threats. The Pledge of Allegiance feels like bullshit when those who hold the American flag refuse to hold Black Lives Matter and Pride flags too. It feels like bullshit when female reproductive rights are in the hands of penis-carrying men. It feels like bullshit when synagogues, mosques, and temples are attacked out of fear and ignorance. And our loyalty to a flag that stands for taking children from parents and locking them in cages feels real shitty too.
Having our kids repeat the Pledge on autopilot is bullshit too. But it doesn’t have to be.
We need to teach kids why we say the Pledge of Allegiance. I am not saying our kids need to be privy to all of the negative and scary events happening in the White House and in our country, but kindergarteners are definitely old enough to start having conversations about race, religion, poverty, and LGBTQ rights. In order to feel pride as an American, I want my kids—all kids—to know that their freedom and so many others’ does not come easy. Kids need to know they have a duty to themselves and their country to be sure liberty and justice for all is more than something mumbled each morning.
I fully understand that living under an American flag gives me the right to say these things. But if we don’t talk to kids about injustice and fairness, it’s hard to respect a ritual that feels like brainwashing. Why do we bother asking students to honor something that feels lost right now? We shouldn’t unless we also take on the responsibility of finding our way again. In that responsibility comes the need to have uncomfortable conversations with kids. It means we, as adults, need to examine our biases and help students understand that this country and its laws are not perfect. Many people are being left out of important conversations.
But the beauty of America is that we are allowed to have these conversations. We are allowed to disagree, but we are not allowed to take away the rights of someone else because we disagree. We need to find ways to practice respect. We live in a democracy that is always unfair to someone, but we need to put systems into place that allow for equality and equity among diverse citizens.
Saying the Pledge of Allegiance can shine a light on what needs to change so fairness can be spread more evenly. But if we don’t call out the bullshit in this country, our morning prayer is blind faith paired with a side of crap.