The Question of the Pledge

During her afterschool snack one day, Delaney (6) asked, "What does 'liberty' mean?"

I knew immediately why she would ask and was once again ashamed of myself in comparison to my kids. I don't think I pondered the meaning of the Pledge of Allegiance until I was well into middle school. When I was her age, I'm certain I thought "EyePlejjaleejins" was one word that meant something like, "Hey, look at the flag." I certainly didn't know I was promising undying loyalty to something.

"Liberty means freedom," I said. "It means being free to do what you want as long as you don't hurt someone else."

"Oh, okay." Pause. "What about 'justice'?"

"Justice means fairness. If there is justice, it means everybody gets treated in a fair way."

"Oh! So when we say 'with liberty and justice for all,' it means 'everybody should be free and everybody should be fair.'"

"That's the idea."

"Hmm," she said. "I like that."

I like it too. A fine, fine idea. I also like the idea that the next time Laney said the Pledge, she had a little more knowledge of just what she was pledging her allegiance to.

There's an email that circulates quite a bit during the times we are asked to stand united against [INSERT IMPLACABLE ENEMY HERE] — the text of a 1969 speech by the comedian Red Skelton in which he recounts the words of an early teacher of his. The teacher had supposedly noticed the students going through the rote recitation of the pledge and decided to explain, word for word, what it meant.

The idea of wanting kids to understand what they are saying is a good one. It solves one of the four issues I have with the Pledge of Allegiance. There is the "under God" clause, of course — but that's the least of my concerns.

Far worse is the fact that it is mandated, either by law, policy, or social pressure. No one of any age should be placed in a situation where a loyalty oath is extracted by force, subtle or otherwise.

Worse still is something I had never considered before I heard it spelled out by Unitarian Universalist minister and Parenting Beyond Belief contributor Kendyl Gibbons at the onset of the latest (at this writing) Iraq

War in a brilliant sermon titled "Why I'm Not Saying the Pledge of Allegiance Any More." At one point she noted how important integrity is to humanism:

One of the most basic obligations that I learned growing up as a humanist was to guard the integrity of my given word. Who and what I am as a human being is not predicated on the role assigned to me by a supernatural creator .. . rather, I am what I say I am; I am the loyalties I give, the promises I keep, the values I affirm, the covenants by which I undertake to live. To give my loyalties carelessly, to bespeak commitments casually, is to throw away the integrity that defines me, that helps me to live in wholeness and to cherish the unique worth and dignity of myself as a person. . . . We had better mean what we solemnly, publicly say and sign.

And then, the central issue—that the pledge is to a flag, when in fact it should be to principles, to values. One hopes that the flag stands for these things, but it's too easy for principles to slip and slide behind a symbol. A swastika symbolized universal harmony in ancient Buddhist and Hindu iconography, then something quite different in Germany of the 1930s and 1940s. Better to pledge allegiance to universal harmony than to the drifting swastika.

The same is true of a flag — any flag. Here's Kendyl again:

I will not give my allegiance to a flag. ... I will not commit the idolatry of mistaking the flag for the nation, or the nation for the ideals. . . . My allegiance is to my country as an expression of its ideals.

To the extent that the republic for which our flag stands is faithful to the premises of its founding, it has my loyalty. . . . But to the extent that it is a finite and imperfect expression of the ideals to which my allegiance is ultimately given, to the extent that it falls into deceit and self-deception, into arrogance and coercion and violence, into self-serving secrecy and double standards of justice, to that extent my loyalty must take the form of protest, and my devotion must be expressed in dissent.7

It remains to this day one of the most eloquent addresses I've ever heard. And it continues to motivate me to raise children who pledge their allegiances conditionally rather than blindly—something that will make their eventual allegiances all the more meaningful.

—Dale McGowan, from the blog The Meming of Life every day. I'm happy with the idea of religious literacy but am worried about indoctrination into the religion itself. Should I be?

A: I'm a passionate supporter of public schools, but if they are too far gone in your area, there's no use making your child a martyr to principle. A child in a (genuinely) progressive religious environment at school and a freethought environment at home might just have the best of all possible situations for genuine freethought. Three questions to ask:

1. Is it really multidenominational? A broad identity requires a certain amount of flexibility and generally causes Hell to evaporate. But many schools make the claim to increase enrollment but are really founded and funded by a single denomination. Ask to see stats on the religious affiliations of the students. The more the mix, the better. If you catch a whiff of Baptist or Catholic affiliation, stay away. Neither denomination has covered itself with glory when it comes to genuinely open inquiry.

2. What is the attitude toward open questioning and religious doubt? Mission statements will often reveal at least the official posture. A conversation with the principal will reveal more.

3. Get a look at the science curriculum standards, and by all means, get your hands on the eighth grade science book. If the world is less than 10,000 years old, run screaming into the woods.

If you get good answers regarding affiliation, openness, and science ed, I'll bet you're fine. A low-key, brimstone-free exposure to religious ideas encourages cultural literacy and permits kids to think for themselves. Reinforce exactly that at home.

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    Why i'm not saying the pledge of allegiance anymore kendyl gibbons?
    7 years ago

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