Dispatches from the Potomac#30 | The American “Pledge of Allegiance”

This is a translation of an article originally written in August 2019 for publication in the October 2019 edition of the Marubeni Group Magazine, M-SPIRIT.

Washington D.C. Office General Manager, Marubeni America Corporation    Yoichi Mineo

For a brief period after first arriving in the United States, I participated in a regional corporate 5 km race. At the opening ceremony, after an opening address by the event promoter, the national anthem began to play. At once, and without being prompted by anyone, the other participants removed their hats, stood up straight and placed their right hands over the left side of their chests. The simple act of having a national anthem when there was no particular national holiday or special occasion was certainly new to me, but the national custom of paying respect to the anthem by placing a hand on one’s own heart... for a 30-something year old Japanese man who had never been to the US before, that was quite a new sight.

Patriotism is a very familiar concept in this country, and the “Pledge of Allegiance”, which is the topic of this article, is certainly an example of this. The “Pledge of Allegiance” that I am referring to is a pledge of loyalty to the United States of America, and it goes as follows: “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.”

When reciting the pledge, you are expected to stand facing the flag with your right hand placed over your heart and your hat removed. Also, according to some of my acquaintances whose children attend public primary schools here in the US, the pledge is even recited each day before class starts.

The current Pledge of Allegiance is based on an 1892 draft by a Christian socialist minister called Francis Bellamy. The current version however, strays from Bellamy’s original draft in two notable places. The first is that the original states “I pledge allegiance to my Flag” as opposed to “I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America”, and the second is that Bellamy did not include the words “under God” in his version. Bellamy had originally intended for his pledge to be usable in other countries as well, however it became uniquely American when the words “United States” and “America” were later added in. Additionally, during the Cold War in 1954, the words “under God” were also included partly to differentiate the United States from the Soviet Union which professed itself to be an atheist state.

The pledge itself has been a point of controversy in a variety of cases over the years. In 1943, the Supreme Court decided in favor of parents and students who claimed that, due to certain religious rules regarding the worship of idols (in this case, pledging loyalty to the nation’s flag), public schools may not force children to recite the pledge. This decision was upheld due to the First Amendment to the United States Constitution under which freedom of expression is guaranteed. Since then, it has been deemed unconstitutional to force public school students to recite the pledge. Additionally, a similar case was decided with atheist students (and parents of atheist students) who refused to say the words “under God” as part of the pledge. Although the addition of these words was done in part to distinguish the US from the atheist Soviet Union, the actual result was an outcry of dissent from the American non-religious community.

Every state in the US, excepting Hawaii, Iowa, Vermont and Wyoming, has regulations regarding the pledge. Although there are some differences from state to state, each state has ruled that no public school may force individual students to participate in its recitation (private schools on the other hand may require students to participate) based on the 1943 Supreme Court decision I described above. For example, a student who wishes to be exempt from participation may stay seated and silent during the pledge so long as they do not interfere with the recitation itself. In some states, students are permitted to decide for themselves whether or not they will participate, whereas others may require parental or guardian permission for the students to be exempt.

According to a 2018 survey conducted by the Pew Research Center on “things necessary to be a good citizen”, 50% of those polled responded that “knowing the pledge of allegiance” (in other words, being able to recite it) is “very important” to being a good citizen; if we include those who responded “somewhat important”, this figure climbs to 75%. However, if we look at the demographic breakdown of the 50% who answered “very important” by political party affiliation, we see a massive discrepancy of 71% republicans to 34% democrats. Furthermore, if we look at the breakdown by age, 64% were over the age of 65 while only 38% were between the ages of 18-29. These figures illustrate a stark difference in thinking between those of differing political ideologies and age groups.

Regardless, it is probably still early days to conclude, looking only at statistics like these, that the American pledge of allegiance will be a thing of the past in the near future. In June of this year, when the city council of Saint Louis Park, Minnesota decided to stop having the pledge of allegiance before council meetings, they were met with significant backlash, including from their own citizens. Ultimately, the council reinstated the ceremonial recitation of the pledge the very next month. Saint Louis Park has historically been a liberal stronghold, having elected only democratic candidates for congress since 1963. Against that backdrop, the city council officials thought that by doing away with the pledge before city council meetings, they might create a city where new residents (of different races, nationalities, religions etc.) could live comfortably, but it seems that this old method of displaying patriotism is still deeply rooted in the American psyche.