The Pledge of Allegiance: A Critique

In 2017, a then-seventeen-year-old student, Mari Leigh Oliver, filed suit against her high school after she was repeatedly penalized for not standing for the Pledge of Allegiance. Her teacher wrote her up, and when she reported it to the principal, it was defended. At another point, the teacher took away her phone due to her “lack of respect” for the pledge. (It probably won’t come as a surprise that this teacher also regularly read Bible passages in this public school.) American Atheists took on her case, and they recently won a large settlement.

Now, she gave one reason: America does not have liberty and justice for all, and she does not want to pretend that it does. As she is a person of color, it makes sense she would argue this. Yet there are, I would argue, several points at which we could critique the pledge, which I would not recite or stand for either.

First, the pledge is traced to Francis Bellamy, but he didn’t even write it. A copy of the Ellis County News Republican, a newspaper in Kansas, ran an article about a class saying a pledge that sounds an awful lot like Bellamy’s pledge, during a school ceremony on April 30, 1892. Here’s what they said: “I pledge Allegiance to my Flag and to the Republic for which it stands, one Nation inseparable, with Liberty and Justice for all.” Yes, a few differences, but it’s obvious that one is just the other but modified a little. Here’s the catch: this was a few months before Bellamy claimed to write it, and he claimed that he wrote the whole thing.

The New York Times noted recently (https://www.nytimes.com/2022/04/02/us/pledge-of-allegiance-francis-bellamy.html) that a schoolboy named Frank Bellamy (no relation to Francis) wrote the pledge and submitted it to Francis’ magazine. Francis stole the pledge roughly two years later.

But that doesn’t address the pledge itself. There are three other grounds for critiquing it.

  1. Francis Bellamy was a xenophobe and a racist who wanted to make sure via the pledge that immigrants swore their loyalty to the U.S. alone. Here are some choice comments he made: “We are receiving the vilest elements” from Italy, “expelled Jews who will not labor with their hands, but choose to be parasites of tenement houses and worthless vendors” from Poland and Russia, and also, “There are other races which we cannot assimilate without a lowering of our racial standard, which should be as sacred to us as the sanctity of our homes.”
  2. “Under God” was added in 1954, a change designed to separate us from “godless” Russian communists. But we are not and never have been a Christian nation. John Adams said as much: “The United States is in no way founded on the Christian religion.” We were founded as a secular republic, a very rare event indeed (and a cause for patriotism if anything is). For more on this, I recommend The Founding Myth by Andrew Seidel.
  3. We are not a nation that has “liberty and justice for all”, and some oppressed minorities, such as people of color, have spoken against the pledge just because of this line. Most importantly it implies that justice is a given rather than an aspiration, a trap into which we cannot fall.

In summary, then, the pledge is un-American, racist, and ignores the fact of injustice in America. It’s not something that we have any responsibility to respect.

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