08 September 2014

Another topic I tire of writing out opinion on

The Pledge. 

This comes up often in discussions with atheists. While I share some of the discomfort of other secularists in a ritual which implies an affirmation of belief in a deity, my main objections to the entire enterprise are more complex than simply finding "under god" offensive to those sensibilities, or more accurately, that lacking those affirmations makes one "unpatriotic". The pledge itself is more objectionable than the precise wording including a religious phrase to be uttered. Both to the notion of religious belief involved and to the associations of "patriotism" with "nationalism", in a profane exercise of confusing the two in the minds of (usually) impressionable children.

While it appears that if we ask a populace aware of the history of this pledge and ritual practice, and the changes of its language, far more recently in both its origins and current design, that that populace is more comfortable (but not popularly comfortable) abolishing the "under god" from the recited lines required, this is not the biggest problem I have had with the issues surrounding the pledge. I never felt that it was in some way requiring an affirmation of belief in a deity to mouth words. This is because the far bigger problem was the affirmation of a ritual requiring a declaration of patriotic duty in a particular way. The exercise of putting everyone in a room together to "support" or "respect" "our troops", as it was recently declared, and other affirmations of what is implied by one's patriotic responsibilities as a citizen is the offensive quality of the pledge. Patriotic duties are wide and varied, and the implication is not the same as blind nationalistic sentiments. The pledge is primarily about the latter. It is not a statement for the love and fostering of growth, prosperity, and peaceful development of a nation-state and its people, but obedience to its symbols, authority, and leaders that it is celebrating and developing.

We can see this in the manner that it is conducted, led by an authority figure (a teacher or school official), with a variety of methods of condemning or shaming those who do not comply. Among the student body, if not done by the teacher. We can see this in the number of complaints and court cases filed, not necessarily and not often by atheists who object to the language, but by co-religious figures who find the nature and coerced expression of patriotism offensive in its design. We can see this in the violence that was perpetrated against those who refused, out of a strongly held religious belief rather than its absence, not to accede to the standing and reciting of some words (even before those words included the sometimes objectionable phrase "under god").

A free society without room for disagreement and debate does not last long in a peaceful state with itself. A society that seeks to provide space for its people to decide how best, or even whether to, love and improve one's nation and the state of its people should not start the lives and days of its youth with the premise that its people and residents owe love to that country and its leaders. That would be earned out of the respect for the ideals of that society as they are practiced in providing that liberty, not out of a declared and recited oath of fealty to a nation that will strive, and not always succeed, to reach those ideals. Obedience is not a quality that should be enjoyed in a democratic society without it having been earned through a level of trust in the obedience of its people and leaders to protecting and fostering the values of a democratic society and it is definitely not a quality that should be enjoyed and fostered by rote and ritual presentation for children to participate in by fiat and requirement.

As a final, and perhaps more annoying note. The "under God" phrase itself is objectionable not merely for its religious elements. But because it is grammatically awkward. It was clearly inserted as a half-measure when it was done so in the 1950s and as a way to reference Lincoln's Gettysburg Address. But Lincoln's speech used the phrase in an entirely different way, something akin to a request say "god willing", that we might aspire to that goal of a unified and free nation (certainly in his time, and ours in many ways, still a very uncertain prospect). This does not appear to be the presentation of the words used in the pledge, which appear to be a purposeful inclusion of the sovereignty of a deity over the land. As opposed to the communists who opposed us when it was inserted. In order to make such a statement, the phrase is ill-suited.

The appropriate response of secularists, or people of a humanistic ethic generally, isn't really to demand the language be changed so they too can participate in this curious ritual. The appropriate response is to remain seated when the pledged is to be uttered. Do not participate in it at all. Submit to authority where it is warranted, not where it is only demanded.
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