Monday, October 19, 2015

Vows and Covenants: Unpacking the Pledge of Allegiance

They “pledge allegiance to the flag
Of the United States of America
And to the republic for which it stands is
One nation, under God, indivisible
With liberty and justice for all.”

People do that.  The pledge their allegiance.  They make a vow.  They give their word that they will give of themselves and their talents and their lives for the greater good of the tribe to which they belong.  They vow to create and build, as well as destroy, on behalf of their people.

Most of us of at least a certain age would instinctively rise, place our hands on our hearts and recite the Pledge when instructed to do it.  And we’ve done so since childhood.  We learned to say it long before we knew what it meant.  That generally comes later.  

Think for a moment about how you feel about the Pledge of Allegiance right now.  Meditate on the idea of it for a moment.  Think about your opinion.  Decide how you feel about it, if you’ve never thought about it before.  Think about it now.  Would you recite it right now if asked?  What if ordered?  Why or why not?  What are the reasons?  In thinking about the Pledge how do you feel right now?  Are you feeling pride?  Patriotism?  Sacrifice?  Or perhaps doubt?  Anger?  Resentment?  

Well, aside from how it came to be, is what’s the point?  What’s the purpose of the Pledge of Allegiance?  It is a curious ritual.  It makes a widespread impact in some corners and in others none at all.  For them it’s a string words we said back in homeroom every morning. And by custom we sometimes have to stand and say it again once in a while.  For others it is an offense.  Considered a violation of the very rights the flag is intended to indirectly represent.  A compulsory state-sanctioned religious prayer.  Fortunately, at least it is no longer compulsory, although 46 states do still require schools to make time for it.

And then there are those for whom it represents its intended meaning: A commitment to a fledgling idea so powerful and loving and radical that it would take centuries to learn how to use it wisely: Freedom.  There are those for whom the Pledge of Allegiance is a sacred act, lovingly given, and with honor and gratitude.  They think of those who have died for it.  Not whether their deaths were justified. They just think about them.  They know that people have died by the thousands over an idea.  They know the color red.

The point here is not to degrade that beautiful intent, but to honor it.  For it is given honestly and forgivingly.

There's a lot that goes on in these five little lines that have become part of our American tradition.   What is its purpose?  What does it accomplish?  Well it's purposes and accomplishments are different things.

Close your eyes for a moment and remain seated, but if you’re willing, slowly recite the words, if not, just listen.  [recite the Pledge]   There is a meditative quality to it.  An intoning.  A gathering ritual.  Once can almost understand why teachers might like such a moment at the start of school each morning.  What value it might have in bringing everyone to center.  Likewise a singing of the National Anthem or “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” is also an intonement ritual.  And in that aspect alone they are no different than a hymn in church or the Lord’s Prayer, or a Buddhist chant, or a cheer at a football game.  Physiologically they all serve the same purpose.  A centering. A unifying.  Communally recited, they unify a gathering and align our spirits to one another.  They make us of one voice just for the sake of it.

All intonements have this quality to them.  Where they vary is the words; the intention.  Beyond intoning there is intent.  There is prayer.  There is promising.  There are those things, but also often too are words like honoring and celebration which we often choose to accompany an intonement ritual.  We craft words based on a goal we think we have, but we often find that we are incapable of living up to them.  At least at first.  The Bill of Rights and the Declaration of Independance are much like this.  Words as dreams, aspirations, intentions to be more loving, more welcoming, more compassionate.  More than we are when they are composed.  We write the words to impress with our advanced state of being and yet we have not achieved that advanced state, we merely dream of it.

Nearly every country has a Pledge of their own or something like it.  But only the United States makes a pledge first to a piece of fabric and then to the country it represents.  No other country in the world makes a pledge to its flag.  Some might consider that to be a form of idolatry.  And you might wonder why that is so.  But you only have to remember the fact that this Pledge is to the American flag.  The land of both capitalism and freedom.  The New Jerusalem of Free Will.  And even our vows have room for product placement.

On Wednesday it will be the 123rd anniversary of the first reciting of the Pledge by school children. “The Pledge of Allegiance was written in August 1892 by Francis Bellamy (1855–1931), who was a Baptist minister, a Christian socialist, and the cousin of socialist utopian novelist Edward Bellamy (1850–1898). The original "Pledge of Allegiance" was published in the September 8 issue of the popular children's magazine The Youth's Companion (for which Bellamy was coincidentally a writer and publicist) as part of the National Public-School Celebration of Columbus Day, a celebration of the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus's arrival in the Americas. The event was conceived and promoted by James B. Upham, a marketer for The Youth’s Companion magazine, as a campaign to instill the idea of American nationalism in students, and sell both flags and magazines to public schools.”1

They sold 25,000 flags that first year.  James Upham, of The Youth’s Companion who were sponsoring the campaign not only published the magazine that promoted the campaign, but also published the official program for all schools outlining the Pledge, its ritual, and its purposes.  The magazine did pretty well that year, too, I suspect.

Bellamy's original 1892 Pledge read as follows:

I pledge allegiance to my Flag
and the Republic for which it stands,
one nation, indivisible,
with liberty and justice for all.

You’ll notice the words my flag rather than the flag and the absence of later additions like of the United States of America and under God.  Those came later.  Bellamy was a socialist and originally wanted words like equality and fraternity to be in the Pledge but he knew that the “powers that be” were against equality for women and African Americans.  So those words never made it to the final draft.  There was no government agency overseeing the composition and it was approved by Upham and the other members of The Youth’s Companion for publication.

The Pledge underwent a few revisions over the next six decades.  First they added the word to in 1922 so that it read I pledge allegiance to my flag and to the republic for which it stands.  The following year in 1923 the words of the United States were added as well as the change from my flag to the flag (so as not to confuse immigrants who may have felt an allegiance to their former country), and then the following year yet another addition.  The words of America were added.  After three years in a row of changes, the Pledge remained static for another thirty years until the early 1950’s when the Knights of Columbus picked up a trend started by an Illinois lawyer six years earlier who had begun promoting the idea of adding the words under God to the Pledge.  

The Knights of Columbus, a Catholic fraternity, spread the addition throughout their national organization and eventually handed their revision to the President, Vice President and Speaker of the House.  After a couple of years and the voices of other advocates, “Congress passed the necessary legislation and Eisenhower signed the bill into law on Flag Day, June 14, 1954 (officially adding under God to the Pledge). Eisenhower stated, "From this day forward, the millions of our school children will daily proclaim in every city and town, every village and rural school house, the dedication of our nation and our people to the Almighty.... 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 or in war.””2 There are, of course, a number of ways one might feel about that.

According to the Flag Code, the Pledge "should be rendered by standing at attention facing the flag with the right hand over the heart. When not in uniform, men should remove any non-religious headdress with their right hand and hold it at the left shoulder, the hand being over the heart. Persons in uniform should remain silent, face the flag, and render the military salute."3

Now what does all this mean?  We have a Pledge that was begun as part of a dual campaign to sell flags and magazines, and empowered by the religious right to add the word God to the ritual.  It would be easy to feel a sense of resentment towards the evolution of this short bit of prosaic covenant.  

But we are taught by world faiths to be accepting of all things.  To have peace over them.  Even if you intend to change them, the philosophy is to first have peace over them.  Accept them and see what is there for you.  Then set about making mindful and rational change.

And though we may have varying opinions on what, if anything, should be changed about the Pledge, for the moment it is what it is.  But what is it?

Like all pledges and vows it is an opportunity to speak mindfully.  To make promises with purpose and understanding.  To know what you are saying and understand what it means.  Otherwise you are just stringing useless syllables and words together without purpose or meaning.  They are being said in vain.  

What if we were to not only teach our children the words of the Pledge, but asked them to consider what the words mean before requiring them to recite it?  Why do we diminish the value of making a promise when we take no time to unpack that promise and help them understand it?  We have an opportunity to teach them the value of making a promise early on, but we waste it.  We have been indoctrinated into rote repetition and blind obedience.  This is not what makes a strong country or a strong individual.  This is not a good basis for being impeccable with our words.

And we might look at the Pledge and think that it has no value because it was composed by capitalism and proselytization.  Even the words under God have a somewhat dubious placement because the Illinois lawyer who introduced them did so because he believed that Lincoln had used those words in the Gettysburg Address.  Even though those words do not appear in the majority of the transcripts of the Address.  And while Lincoln may have ad libbed them, the expression under God was at that time the equivalent of saying with God’s blessing.  It meant may it ever be so rather than placing the United States under the rule of Heaven.  For Lincoln, it was about hope not hierarchy.

And so what if it was capitalism that prompted the creation of the Pledge?  Capitalism is itself value-neutral.  It can be done with compassion or with greed.  Capitalism itself is not mutually-exclusive to integrity.  And if you believe in the higher power referred to in the Pledge, perhaps the conspiracy was not on us by the composers, but on the composers by something else.  One never knows what’s really in play.

Perhaps we should remember that capitalism, both for good and for greed, have also been a bringer of great things in the world.  Medical advancement in the case of the greed of insurance and pharmaceutical companies. Civil rights for the LGBT community came as a result of companies realizing that the gays had money they weren’t capitalizing on.  Suddenly, gay-friendly advertisements and television shows started popping up.  Through this, society became gradually desensitized about the issue of LGBT equality and within twenty years were allowed the right to legally marry throughout the country.  Capitalism did that.

And while we must remain vigilant about the motivations of greed, we must also be mindful of the blessings inherent within all things.  We must not throw out the baby with the bathwater.

The Pledge of Allegiance may or may not be an advantageous ritual in our society.  It may or may not have lived up to its stated goals of increasing patriotism and nationalism beginning with our children.  That is actually beside the point.  The point here is that when we make a promise, when we make a vow or covenant, we must must must make them mindfully.  Teaching our children to recite a vow at an age when they can have no real understanding of what they are promising is abuse of their trust in us.  We have been indoctrinated into following orders mindlessly when we are a culture that has been built on a foundation of free will and human choice.  When you recite a covenant, even our own here at First Parish, we must do it mindfully.  We must know what we are saying and what it means.  We must not make a promise that we cannot keep.

A study was published in 2014 about promise making and keeping.4  They found that keeping promises was essential to a functioning and honorable society that engendered trust between one another.  Breaking promises had a destructive effect.  But most interestingly was the fact that exceeding one’s promises actually prompted no greater appreciation for having gone the extra mile.  Overall, we don’t care if people exceed expectations anywhere near as much as if they simply do what they say they will.

Keeping promises doesn’t have to require an excessive effort, it only requires that you know what you are promising and stick to it.  Don’t make promises that you don’t think you can keep.  Know the words you are saying and remain loyal to them.

Say the Pledge of Allegiance, don’t say the Pledge of Allegiance.  We are free to make that decision for ourselves.  I invite you to make that decision for yourself.  Place your loyalties wisely and then commit to them fully.  Be impeccable with your word.  For the word has power.  It has purpose.  It has meaning.  Your biology hears it and so may God.  Something is listening regardless on what plane of existence the Listener resides.  If it is within you, be honest and true to yourself.  If it is God, the advice is no different.

1. (accessed Oct 2015)
2.  Ibid. (accessed Oct 2015)
3.  Ibid. (accessed Oct 2015)
4. (accessed Oct 2015)

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