“I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America and to the republic for which it stands…” By my rough calculations, I have said these words well over 5,000 times in Fuller Hall since joining the Academy in 1984. While I always say them with intention, there are times when a confluence of events causes me to think more deliberately about them and to ask that our students, faculty, and staff who are United States citizens do the same. Such was the case when, within the span of three days, I saw signs on the local, state, and national level that this idea of pledging allegiance was ripe for discussion.
Last Friday, Vermont Public Radio asked me if I had anyone on staff who could speak on civics education. The timing could not have been more perfect, since our AP Government teacher Hank Eaton would be in Montpelier coaching our We the People team in a Constitutional law competition on Monday. On Saturday, I read an article in the Caledonian-Record about the playwriting workshop held on campus last week during which one student wrote about two American soldiers. This prompted the visiting playwright to ask, “How many of you are loyal to the United States?” which resulted in the raising of only a few tentative hands and the recognition that the question of loyalty was often more complicated than it seemed. Finally, when our Student Government held a student forum last week, one of the issues discussed was why we say the Pledge of Allegiance each morning. At a time when the Iowa Caucuses and the New Hampshire Primary have generated a lot of rhetoric about citizenship and patriotism, I felt it was time to look more carefully at the pledge, allegiance, and citizenship.
The first part of our exploration of these topics involved an experiment. I asked everyone in Chapel to stand up, and then I read the following sentences, asking people to sit down as soon as they heard one with which they did not agree:
1. I renounce and reject all allegiances to foreign governments and leaders
2. I promise to support and defend the Constitution and laws of my country against all enemies, foreign and domestic
3. I will remain true to the Constitution and laws of my country
4. If required by law, I will
a. Bear arms on behalf of my country
b. Perform noncombatant service in the Armed Forces of my country
c. Perform work of national importance under civilian direction
I made the statements generic as to which country these applied, recognizing that we have students from almost 30 countries here, but the results were similar throughout Fuller Hall. Everyone remained standing for the first three, and about a third sat down after the fourth. While I couldn’t give an accurate estimate of how many countries were represented among those who sat, I could tell there were several.
I asked students to reflect on the fact that, if they applied for citizenship in the United States today, they could not become citizens unless they were willing to say yes to all of these statements contained within the Oath of Allegiance to the United States of America. Based on their response, many of those in Fuller Hall, fortunate enough to be born into American citizenship, would not qualify to become citizens today. I also asked them to reflect on the fact that citizenship is a social contract, requiring those who enjoy its benefits to make some promises in return.
Listening to students in the hallways, I discovered that some sat down because they had already considered that question and decided they were pacifists, some sat down because they didn’t understand the statement but saw others sitting around them, others simply did what their friends had done, and some took the first chance to sit down because they were ”too tired to stand”. All except for the first of these reasons struck me as being both far from ideal as well as problematic for citizens in a democracy.
I then turned to the Pledge of Allegiance, something that almost everyone says by rote each morning, including those who did not agree with the Oath of Citizenship. We ask everyone to stand out of respect even if they cannot or choose not to say the Pledge. I asked students to really reflect on what it means:
- “I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America and to the republic for which it stands”—I pledge allegiance to the republic for which the flag stands—a representative democracy defined and governed by the Constitution formed by “we, the people of the United States of America”;
- “One nation…”—This republic is one nation, the entirety of which is governed by the Constitution;
- “Under God…”—It is under God reflecting a belief in a supreme being;
- “Indivisible…”—We remain one nation throughout our 50 states;
- “With liberty and justice for all”—All citizens enjoy the same freedoms and fair protection under the law.
I also wanted them to understand what the Pledge does not mean:
- It is not an oath of allegiance to any government, Congress, court, or President;
- It does not specify belief in a particular religion;
- It does not encourage squelching of dissenting voices;
- It does not require acceptance of the status quo;
- It does not imply the belief that the ideal of this republic is currently met or has ever been fully realized.
I expressed that I would like all those who say the Pledge to say only what they mean, not just mouthing the words, but saying them with intention and intelligence. I would also like for those who don’t say it to have thoughtfully considered whether their objections are reasonable.
In the end, I wanted everyone to understand the democracy of conscience and that our allegiance is not the fealty owed to a liege lord, but the fidelity to a nation, to a people, upholding promises which are exclusionary and particular—“I pledge allegiance”—I promise to respect and fulfill my duties to this people, not any other. This kind of allegiance means that I serve my country with my conscience as well as my body and mind. As Thoreau said in his essay on civil disobedience,
The mass of men serve the state […], not as men mainly, but as machines, with their bodies. …Others, as most legislators, politicians, lawyers, ministers, and office-holders, serve the state chiefly with their heads; A very few, as heroes, patriots, martyrs, reformers in the great sense, and men, serve the state with their consciences also, and so necessarily resist it for the most part; and they are commonly treated as enemies by it.
Conscience is our surest guide when rightly informed and followed, and my conscience tells me I owe a debt of gratitude to this country and to those who have defined, developed, and defended its Constitution. My conscience also tells me that the republic which is defined in the pledge is a worthy ideal to uphold, and yet I am conscious of the fact that I am free to speak out against perceived injustices and imperfections because of the liberty and justice guaranteed in the Constitution.
As I was walking to Chapel before talking about this topic to the Freshman class, Bosnian refugee Adnan Macedonci, who chose to accept the Oath of Allegiance as part of the process of becoming a U.S. citizen, said, “People have no idea how lucky they are. When I go back to Bosnia now, people are jealous because I am a U.S. citizen.” More than anything else this brought home the points I had been trying to make. Young people—indeed all people in a democracy—need to be conscious of the choices they are making and conscientious in making the best decisions they can. At the same time, we must all keep in mind how lucky we are that these choices are ours to make.