If our national civic religion is Patriotism, then our scriptures are the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. Our saints are Washington, Jefferson and Lincoln, our primary hymn is the “Star-Spangled Banner” and our essential ritual is the Pledge of Allegiance.
But even civic religion is ambiguous. It can bring us together or separate us. It can be both inclusive and exclusive, both tolerant and coercive. It can be a force for good or for the not-so-good, and it’s easily co-opted for other purposes that fall short of its best aspirations.
And it often readily devolves into empty, rote ritual that doesn’t have much connection to its spirit.
I was thinking about this last week when an assembly in which I found myself rose for the Pledge of Allegiance. It could have been a school board meeting, a high school commencement, a political rally, city council meeting or any of a number of other meetings that regularly open with the Pledge.
I’ve never been particularly fond of the Pledge. At best, it encourages patriotism, reminding us that we are all part of a worthy country. On the other hand, the Pledge readily lapses into perfunctory, meaningless repetition. At worst, we’re tempted to use it as a gauge of other people’s patriotism.
The Pledge wasn’t written in 1776. It was produced in 1892 by a nativist socialist, Francis Bellamy, partly as a reaction to an influx of swarthy immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe, whose children, so Bellamy thought, needed an indoctrination in Americanism.
The Pledge was meant to encourage conformity, but it soon took on elements of coercion, as well. Some citizens who declined the Pledge — Jehovah’s Witnesses, for example, who refuse to pledge allegiance to anyone but God — were ostracized, lost their jobs, beaten and, in a few cases, killed.
Then in 1954, the phrase “under God” was added, partly as a reaction to the spread of atheistic communism. So what do skeptics, agnostics and atheists do during this part of the Pledge?
In short, if we want to publicly venerate our nation’s spirit of democracy, out of our rich history of patriotic discourse, is the Pledge the best we can do?
The Pledge takes about 15 seconds to recite, the same time it would take to read aloud this famous proclamation by Patrick Henry before the Second Virginia Convention in 1775:
“Is life so dear or peace so sweet as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take, but as for me, give me liberty, or give me death!”
This is an expression of the spirit of the Revolution that every American should call to mind occasionally.
Or consider this excerpt from a letter that Sullivan Ballou wrote to his wife on July 14, 1861, a week before he was killed at the First Battle of Bull Run:
“I have no misgivings about, or lack of confidence in the cause in which I am engaged, and my courage does not halt or falter. I know how strong American Civilization now leans on the triumph of the Government and how great a debt we owe to those who went before us through the blood and sufferings of the Revolution. And I am willing — perfectly willing — to lay down all my joys in this life, to help this Government, and to pay that debt.”
The Preamble to the Constitution? The Gettysburg Address? Our national literature is rich with possibilities. And not all of them were written by white men. Expressions of patriotism by women, African Americans, Hispanics, immigrants and others — and there are many — would serve to remind us that not everyone’s experience of American freedom is identical and that patriotism is a complex, multi-faceted emotion.
Of course, replacing the Pledge with a short patriotic reading would take some time and effort on someone’s part. But that could be a small price to pay for replacing a perfunctory, occasionally coercive, ritual with genuine expressions of American patriotism that could be instructive, as well as edifying.
John Crisp, an op-ed columnist for Tribune News Service, lives in Georgetown, Texas, and can be reached at email@example.com.