Why the Pledge of Allegiance Should be Revised
By: Gwen Wilde
(This essay was written for a composition course at Tufts University.)
All Americans are familiar with the Pledge of Allegiance, even if they cannot always recite it perfectly, but probably relatively few know that the original Pledge did not include the words “under God.” The original Pledge of Allegiance, published in the September 8, 1892, issue of the Youth’s Companion, ran thus:
I pledge allegiance to my flag, and to the Republic for which it stands: one Nation indivisible, with Liberty and justice for all. (Djupe 329)
In 1923, at the first National Flag Conference in Washington, DC, it was argued that immigrants might be confused by the words “my Flag,” and it was proposed that the words be changed to “the Flag of the United States.” The following year it was changed again, to “the Flag of the United States of America,” and the wording became the official—or, rather, unofficial—wording, unofficial because no wording had ever been nationally adopted (Djupe 329).
In 1942, the United States Congress included the Pledge in the United States Flag Code (4 USC 4, 2006), thus for the first time officially sanctioning the Pledge. In 1954, President Dwight D. Eisenhower approved adding the words “under God.” Thus, since 1954 the Pledge reads:
I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the Republic for which it stands: one nation under God, indivisible, with Liberty and Justice for all. (Djupe 329)
In my view, the addition of the words “under God” is inappropriate, and they are needlessly divisive—an odd addition indeed to a Nation that is said to be “indivisible.”
Very simply put, the Pledge in its latest from requires all Americans to say something that some Americans do not believe. I say “requires” because although the courts have ruled that students may not be compelled to recite the Pledge, in effect peer pressure does compel all but the bravest to join in the recitation. When President Eisenhower authorized the change, he said,
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 and war. (Sterner)
Exactly what did Eisenhower mean when he spoke of “the transcendence of faith in America’s heritage,” and when he spoke of “spiritual weapons”? I am not sure what “the transcendence of faith in America’s heritage” means. Of course many Americans have been and are deeply religious—no one doubts it—but the phrase certainly goes far beyond saying that many Americans have been devout. In any case, many Americans have not been devout, and many Americans have not believed in “spiritual weapons,” but they have nevertheless been patriotic Americans. Some of them have fought and died to keep America free.
In short, the words “under God” cannot be uttered in good faith by many Americans. True, something like 70 or even 80% of Americans say they are affiliated with some form of Christianity, and approximately another 3% say they are Jewish. I don’t have the figures for persons of other faiths, but in any case we can surely all agree that although a majority of Americans say they have a religious affiliation, nevertheless several million Americans do not believe in God.
If one remains silent while others are reciting the Pledge, or even if one remains silent only while others are speaking the words “under God,” one is open to the change that one is unpatriotic, is “unwilling to recite the Pledge of Allegiance.” In the Pledge, patriotism is connected with religious belief, and it is this connection that makes it divisive and (to be blunt) un-American. Admittedly the belief is not very specific: one is not required to say that one believes in the divinity of Jesus, or in the power of Jehovah, but the fact remains, one is required to express belief in a divine power, and if one doesn’t express this belief one is—according to the Pledge—somehow not fully an American, maybe even un-American.
Please notice that I am not arguing that the Pledge is unconstitutional. I understand that the First Amendment to the Constitution says that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof. “I am not arguing that the words “under God” in the Pledge add up to the “establishment of religion,” but they certainly do assert a religious doctrine. Like the words “In God we trust,” found on all American money, and the words “under God” express an idea that many Americans do not hold, and there is no reason why these Americans—loyal people who may be called upon to defend the country with their lives—should be required to say that America is a nation “under God.”
It has been argued, even by members of the Supreme Court, that the words “under God” are not to be taken terribly seriously, not to be taken to say what they seem to say. For instance, Chief Justice Rehnquist wrote,
To give the parent of such a child a sort of “heckler’s veto” over a patriotic ceremony willingly participated in by other students, simply because the Pledge of Allegiance contains the descriptive phrase “under God,” is an unwarranted extension of the establishment clause, an extension which would have the unfortunate effect of prohibiting a commendable patriotic observance. (qtd. In Mears)
Chief Justice Rehnquist here calls “under God” a “descriptive phrase,” but descriptive of what? If a phrase is a “descriptive phrase,” it describes something, real or imagined. For many Americans, this phrase does not describe a reality. These Americans may perhaps be mistaken—if so, they may learn of their error at Judgment Day—but the fact is, millions of intelligent Americans do not believe in God.
Notice, too, that Chief Justice Rehnquist goes on to say that reciting the Pledge is “a commendable patriotic observance.” Exactly. That is my point. It is a patriotic observance, and it should not be connected with religion. When we announce that we respect the flag—that we are loyal Americans—we should not also have to announce that we hold a particular religious belief, in this case a belief in monotheism, a belief that there is a God and that God rules.
One other argument defending the words “under God” is often heard: the words “In God We Trust” appear on our money. It is claimed that these words on American money are analogous to the words “under God” in the Pledge. But the situation really is very different. When we hand some coins over, or some paper money, we are concentrating on the business transaction, and we are not making any affirmation about God or our country. But when we recite the Pledge—even if we remain silent at the point when we are supposed to say “under God”—we are very conscious that we are supposed to make this affirmation, an affirmation that many Americans cannot in good faith make, even though they certainly can unthinkingly hand over (or accept) money with the words “In God We Trust.”
Because I believe that reciting the Pledge is to be taken seriously, with a full awareness of the words that is quite different from when we hand over some money, I cannot understand the recent comment of Supreme Court Justice Souter, who in a case said that the phrase “under God” is “so tepid, so diluted, so far from compulsory prayer, that it should, in effect, be beneath the constitutional radar” (qtd. in “Guide”). I don’t know his reasoning that the phrase should be “beneath the constitutional radar,” but in any case I am willing to put aside the issue of constitutionality. I am willing to grant that this phase does not in any significant sense signify the “establishment of religion” (prohibited by the First Amendment) in the United States. I insist, nevertheless, that the phrase is neither “tepid” nor “diluted.” It means what it says—it must and should mean what it says, to everyone who utters it—and, since millions of loyal Americans cannot say it, it should not be included in the statement in which Americans affirm their loyalty to our great country.
In short, the Pledge, which ought to unite all of us, is divisive; it includes a phrase that many patriotic Americans cannot bring themselves to utter. Yes, they can remain silent when others recite these two words, but again, why should they have to remain silent? The Pledge of Allegiance should be something that everyone can say, say out loud, and say with pride. We hear much talk of returning to the ideas of the Founding Fathers. The Founding Fathers did not create the Pledge of Allegiance, but we do know that they never mentioned God in the Constitution. Indeed the only reference to religion, in the so-called establishment clause of the First Amendment, says, again, that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” Those who wish to exercise religion are indeed free to do so but the place to do so is not in a pledge that is required of all school-children and of all new citizens.
Djupe, Paul A. “Pledge of Allegiance.” Encyclopedia of American Religion and Politics.
Ed. Paul A. Djupe and Laura R. Olson. New York: Facts on File, 2003.
“Guide to Covering ‘Under God’ Pledge Decision.” ReligionLink. Religion
Newswriters Foundation, 17 Sept. 2005. Web. 9 Feb. 2007.
Mears, Bill. “Court Dismisses Pledge Case.” CNN.com. Cable News Network 15 June
2004. We. 9 Feb. 2007.
Sterner, Doug. “The Pledge of Allegiance.” Home of Heroes. N.p., n.d. Web. 9 Feb.
Topics for Critical Thinking and Writing
1. Analyze the sources used in this essay. What is each source? Which source has an editor? Which source lacks an author? Are the sources varied, scholarly, and recent? Do they enhance the credibility of the author or diminish it?
2. Summarize the essay in a single paragraph.
3. Does the background material about the history of the pledge serve a useful purpose? Should it be deleted? Why, or why not?
4. What arguments does the writer offer in support of her position? List each point of evidence and determine what type of support each point of evidence demonstrates.
5. List the acknowledgements of any counterarguments the author makes. Is this adequate, or does the writer appear blinded by his or her own perspective? Why, or why not?
6. Which is the writer’s strongest argument? Is any argument notably weak, and, if so, how could it be strengthened?
7. What assumptions—tacit or explicit—does the author make? Do you agree or disagree with them? Please explain.
8. Chief Justice Rehnquist wrote that the words “under God” are a “descriptive phrase.” What do you think he meant by this?
9. What is the purpose of the Pledge of Allegiance? Does the phrase “under God” promote or defeat that purpose? Explain your answer.
10. What do you think about substituting “with religious freedom” for “under God”? Set forth your response, supporting your reasons.
11. Devise an AP Analysis Essay question related to this essay.