The American public education system is a battlefield between passionate politicians and activists of differing political views. Religious advocates and religious skeptics alike have vehemently fought court battles on the boundaries of religion and education such as the teaching of evolution, the expansion of sexual education to include contraception, and the constitutionality of school prayer and the Pledge of Allegiance. I have seen these issues first hand in my experience tutoring and student teaching in schools and I know I will continue to encounter them in my career as an educator. In the current state of heightened tension between racial, ethnic, socioeconomic and political groups wherein “America First” rhetoric is common, rituals such as the recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance are being used to instill certain views of Americanism and patriotism in the most malleable citizens of the country: the children.
Many children in public, charter and private schools begin their morning by reciting the Pledge of Allegiance in unison with their classmates as they face the American flag with their right hand over their heart. Numerous parents however have taken issue with the prominent line in the Pledge “one nation, under God.”
Quite a few citizens have brought it to court to test the constitutionality of the recitation of the Pledge in public schools on the grounds that it entangles church and state, going against the Establishment Clause by favoring one religion over another. They argue that the recitation of the phrase “under God” imposes certain beliefs which contrast with views of non-religious and non-monotheistic students. Despite this, others maintain that the Pledge is not a Christian ritual but an example of civil religion. Sociologist Robert Bellah defines civil religion as “a set of beliefs, symbols, and rituals” which has implicitly instilled religiosity in all aspects of American life, including politics, since the country was founded (171).
The inclusion of a religious reference in the pledge dates back to President Eisenhower’s in the 1950’s. Eisenhower used the Pledge to unify the country during the Cold War in 1954 by adding the controversial line “under God” which was not originally in the Pledge.
President Donald Trump acts as an outspoken proponent of ‘protecting the right’ to recite the Pledge of Allegiance in school. President George W. Bush also spoke out in support of the Pledge following 9/11 when he and First Lady Laura Bush led nationwide recitations throughout public schools in 2001 and 2002. Bush’s push for the Pledge arose at a time when the nation scrambled for meaning and unity. The Pledge was used as a tool to pull together a fractured America through shared values.
Trump uses this heated debate between the courts upholding the constitutionality of the Pledge and liberal activists who speak out against it as fuel to feed his fiery, specific brand of patriotism. This brand is tied to attitudes of discrimination toward racial, religious, ethnic, gender, and sexual minorities. At the Cincinnati stop on Trump’s victory rally tour, for example, he stated:
There is no global anthem. No global currency. No certificate of global citizenship. We pledge allegiance to one flag and that flag is the American flag.
At a Cleveland campaign stop during Trump’s candidacy (shortly after the incident when Colin Kaepernick refused to rise for the national anthem at a 2016 NFL game in order to protest the flag of a country “that oppresses black people and people of color”), Trump similarly said:
We will be united by our common culture, values and principles, becoming one American nation, one country under one Constitution saluting one American flag – and always saluting it – the flag all of you helped to protect and preserve, that flag deserves respect…We want young Americans to recite the Pledge of Allegiance.
Trump does not directly mention Colin Kaepernick during his speech, but his meaning is clear: in Trump’s America, children should be taught to respect and value the flag and American patriotism above all else. A demonstration of discontent with the government by opting out of patriotic rituals is, from this perspective, not acceptable.
In pledging allegiance to the flag, one pledges allegiance to their country and acknowledges its rule under God. Today, many secular people or people of other faiths do not feel comfortable doing so as they are unsure about the current and future state of the nation. In a political climate in which electing not to rise for the Pledge of Allegiance or the National Anthem makes national news and contains multiple political meanings and social values on race, ethnicity and inclusion, the mandating or banning of the Pledge of Allegiance in public schools could serve as a telling litmus test of the attitude of the country concerning the place of religion in everyday life.