Commentary: The pledge of allegiance is, without question, the most successful marketing campaign in history.
The original oath — “I pledge allegiance to my Flag and to the Republic for which it stands — one nation indivisible — with liberty and justice for all” – was essentially part of an effort to sell magazines in 1892.
The publication Youth’s Companion used to distribute U.S. flags as rewards for selling subscriptions. The pledge was written by Francis Bellamy in a push to install flags in every public school for the 400th observance of Columbus Day.
Perhaps it was also a sincere effort to spread patriotic sentiment, but the context was selling subscriptions. Then the marketing campaign took on a life of its own and endures as a quasi-sacred civic ritual 90 years after the magazine folded.
As I already hear readers typing in righteous condemnation, let me establish that my purpose is not to throw rocks at the pledge. Let me a share a memory of one time I found the recitation of the pledge profound and moving.
In a desert camp south of Deming, New Mexico, I attended a flag retirement ceremony in 2017. Flags take a beating in this region, where high winds pull and tear at them, leaving them a sorry sight in as little as 90 days depending on where they fly.
Periodically, officers from the U.S. Border Patrol and local Scout and veterans’ organizations arrange a ceremony where the flags are burned amid salutes and a recitation of the pledge, with participants bridging generations. They wore uniforms and recited the oath with no loss of individuality.
After hearing the pledge thousands of times over most of my life, on that day I heard it with a sincerity that caught my attention.
The words of the pledge were carved into my mind through daily recitation in my own school days, although I always rebelled against saying “under God” (an addition made during the Cold War). Never then or now would any government command me to profess monotheism. I was enough of a rule-follower to recite the rest, despite feeling compelled to participate in ritual nationalism before I even understood what allegiance meant.
More than one adult friend of mine has questioned their own participation in this ritual lately. In light of actions undertaken by the government, be it war, metastasized corruption, failure to respond to the climate emergency or societal violence, a few of my friends are declining to participate in the pledge.
One of these friends grew up in a conservative family and describes palpable symptoms of anxiety when resisting the internalized social pressure to participate.
Such is the power of indoctrination. The pressure to submit is enormous and allows little space for conversation about values or allegiance.
In Minnesota, a city council voted this summer to dispense with the pledge as a fixed agenda item in part because, as one councilor put it, “some of us feel like patriotism has been so politicized that it’s almost used as a weapon against people.” Yet the backlash was so furious they reinstated it.
A student's right to opt out of the pledge dates back to a 1943 Supreme Court ruling (though this remains complicated in some states), but teachers who abstain are in a difficult position, as a teacher in New Jersey found out this month.
As we cannot command another to feel love, so with patriotism. Do these victories, then, instill love of country, or mere obedience? If we cannot distinguish allegiance from submission, are we people or mere subjects?