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Should Christians Say the Pledge of Allegiance?

Should Christians Say the Pledge of Allegiance?

Do you remember saying the Pledge of Allegiance as a kid? When I was growing up, the Pledge was a standard part of every public school classroom. Each morning during announcements, we would be asked to stand and, turning to the American flag that hung at the front of the class, every student and teacher would place hand over heart and recite the creed.

I pledge allegiance
to the flag
of the United States of America,
and to the republic
for which it stands:
one nation
under God
indivisible
with liberty and justice for all.

Technically, no one was required to say the pledge of allegiance. But to say that it was strongly encouraged would be an understatement. It was not presented as an option, and no child in their right mind would want to expose themselves to the kind of questions that would be raised by not participating.

An Opportunity for Faithfulness

My parents never told me that I wasn’t allowed to stand for the Pledge. It wasn’t a rule. But they helped me understand that each morning’s recital was an opportunity to practice faithfulness. In the face of enormous peer pressure, I had a choice to make. Would I recite a statement of faith directed to the nation-state, or would I remain true to the only-sovereign God?

I actually had several options. I could stand – hand on heart – and recite the Pledge. Or, I could just stand, but say nothing. (This way, I wouldn’t actually say the nationalistic creed, but few would notice that I wasn’t fully participating.) Then there was the nuclear option: I could make the choice to remain seated.

I stopped saying the Pledge of Allegiance early, probably in late grade school. By that point, I was able to understand the concept of idolatry – that the American flag was not an appropriate object of my allegiance; only God was. But it took me longer before I would have the courage to remain seated. As long as I was on my feet during the Pledge, I remained invisible. I could avoid saying the words I felt so uncomfortable with, but I could still dodge the social consequences of dissent.

I Will Not Stand

By the time I reached high school, though, I began to sense that even standing for the Pledge did violence to my conscience. I became convinced that I could not participate, even passively, in this act of worship directed towards a nationalistic symbol. My ultimate allegiance belonged only to God.

Full disclosure: I was a pretty rebellious teenager, so bucking the status quo came more naturally for me than it would have for some. But it was still hard. Every morning at 9:00, I made the choice to publicly separate myself from the shared faith of the rest of the class. Every day, I sat while others stood. It was uncomfortable every time.

I did have to stand my ground (so to speak) with a few teachers that didn’t seem aware that the Pledge wasn’t mandatory, but they eventually let it drop. I was occasionally harassed by other students, who assumed that I must just hate America. The idea that the Kingdom of God was my primary allegiance didn’t compute. But overall, I met surprisingly little resistance to my conscientious objection. People got used to it.

Becoming a Cross-Bearer

Still, there were social consequences. I was never a what you would call a social butterfly, and refusing to stand for the pledge of allegiance certainly didn’t help me make friends in a world that values social conformity. By the time I was a teenager, I understood that. I was willing to accept the repercussions of my counter-cultural actions.

In this way, I began to discover what it means to carry the prophetic cross of Jesus. In some small measure, I learned to participate in the public shame of the crucifixion, the violent resistance that always meets us when we shift our allegiance from the authority of Empire to the kingdom of God. I was learning to be a cross-bearer.

In our culture that places such an emphasis on obedience and reverence to the idea of America, we all have a choice. We can choose to be flag-wavers or cross-bearers. Here is how the prophetic intellectual Cornel West describes flag-wavers:

They want the acceptance of the US nation-state; they want the acceptance of the mainstream. So they are silent on drones; they are silent on the centrality of the new Jim Crow in terms of Black life; they are silent on the trade union movement being crushed; they are silent on the Wall Street criminality.

When we choose to be flag-wavers, we rationalize our choice to participate in the domination system. We tell ourselves that we are powerless to challenge the death-dealing structures that hold our people captive. By conforming, we hope that we can work within the system for at least some incremental positive change. We stay silent on some of the most alarming examples of systematic violence and oppression, seeking to maintain our own credibility with our peers – and, above all, with those in power.

Silence is Death

But silence is death to the prophetic tradition. When we stand up for the Pledge, even if we don’t recite the creed, we lend courage to no one. We set an example for no one. We confine our radical imagination to the inside of our skull. And imagination is a species that cannot survive long in captivity.

Our silent conformity to the spirit of this age presents an existential challenge to the possibility of a movement for justice and gospel peace in our time. Again, in the words of Cornel West:

…If we don’t come to terms with this challenge, then we end up being just these deferential flag-wavers, thinking that somehow we are keeping alive the Black prophetic tradition. This self-deception must be shattered – in each and every generation.

It is time to shatter our own self-deception. Are we to be cross-bearers or flag-wavers? Will we prioritize comfort, or faithfulness? Are we willing to expose ourselves to ridicule, to lose the respect of those around us if that’s what it takes to be true to the subversive, life-giving message of the gospel?

Where does our allegiance lie? Will we identify ourselves with the flag, filling our lives with patriotic gestures meant to reassure our neighbors that we, too, share the values of Empire? Or will we have the courage to become troublemakers, those who choose to take up the cross of Jesus, the anti-flag that lays bare the blasphemous violence of Empire?

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  • charlesburchfield

    To be my right size right here right now I have to intentionally try to embrace my life experiences and offer them to god to use as he is w/me helping me to have relationships that are honest & emphatic. Long ago I saw through the 2 dimensional idealized version of what a ‘real American’ was supposed to be. on the other hand I almost got stuck being a cross carrying pain in the ass. I was burdened, burdening & boring. I can see now that in the first half of my life I needed this confining persona in order to survive the trauma i had experienced as a neglected abused child.

  • Jill Hurst-Wahl

    I grew up in a church that – during summer Bible school – said the pledge to the American flag, the Christian flag and the Bible. In them is likely something that still rings true for me today. we do everyone a disservice when we say pledges without any thought. If I could go back in time, I would want to ask if the assumptions behind those pledges rang true for everyone and if not, what did.

    • Hey, Jill. Do you recall what still rings true for you today?

      • jillann57

        What rings true is the feeling of being a part of something larger, e.g., being a part of a larger Christian community. I doubt that those pledges are said by all Christians, since I’ve not heard about them since my childhood, but we do need to feel a part of something bigger than ourselves. A “pledge” can remind us of what that is.

  • I started school in first grade in SW Georgia. They were still loyal to the Confederacy, so of course they did not pledge allegiance to the Yankee flag. We moved to Iowa for second grade. So then I was confronted for the first time with the pledge of allegiance. It didn’t seem to be that I could be a Christian and pledge allegiance to a nationalist flag, so I didn’t. I talked about it to my parents when I got home, and they supported my position. I have never changed my view on this.

  • broschultz

    It’s funny but I spent 11 & 1/2 years in Catholic schools and I know (subject to my geezer memory capacity) the Pledge was how we started every day in the first 8 and no reason to doubt we did it in high school as well. It wasn’t until the Holy Ghost led me through the bible that I started to see the problem. After that I just stand at public functions and keep my mouth shut (an action that some people would require pictures of to verify).

  • Though I was apprehensive about the pledge, I did participate. I reasoned that everything hinged on what allegiance meant, and to me my commitment to God was more than allegiance. Besides, God knew my heart and that he was a much higher priority than country and flag.

    An interesting story: The first day of fifth grade, we stood to say the pledge. One boy, a Christian, stayed seated and refused to participate. Though we did say the pledge that day, it was the only day all year.

  • Greg Williams

    I Dealt with the Pledge in Catholic School too… not really a big deal. Even when I knew it was not mine to say any longer, it was not a big deal. In not saying the Pledge, it was my free will kicking in, it was no big deal. I had a mentor for whom the Pledge was an important part of his life. In World War II, he was commander of a submarine chaser. Later, he was Captain of a destroyer. He resigned from the Navy a month before he would have been eligible for his pension. After hearing on return to Pearl Harbor on August 6, 1945, that an atomic bomb had been dropped on Hiroshima. He was not a Quaker, not then. If you don’t know his name look him up in Wikipedia. or look up. The Golden Rule, boat.

    When I met him in New Bedford , MA. at a Quarterly Meeting in 1975. 20 years after he became a Quaker. He was interested in my work with AFSC and very supportive.
    I found out about, “The Golden Rule but, he never told. I don’t know how he felt about the Pledge… he never said. But he acted out what he believed in. I found out about many acts long after he was gone. What are we doing?

    Most of us pledge to the IRS on April 15th. every year. That money pays for Drones, it pays for I.C.E. to tear families apart. Our Tax dollars paid for ISIS, but we would rather focus on the Pledge? I Hope not!

  • Michael Kingsbury

    I was not raised in a church, but about the 5th grade I felt that I could not say the Pledge, knowing my only allegiance was to God. I was asked to leave aikido class because I would not bow to a picture of it’s founder O Sensei Morihei Ueshiba. Life overtook my Light for a while and I took the oath upon enlisting in the Army. Not long after, I had a crisis of conscience and was baptized a Christian. My new Church welcomed me the soldier with open arms, but for me bearing arms was an issue. I sought out the SoF (after having seen an ad in the back of the Farmer’s Almanac!). Ridiculed, threatened and tormented by peers and superiors alike for my growing interest in Quaker ways, I grit my teeth until the day I was honorably discharged. I’ve been an attender, when possible, ever since. O, the courage of youth…

  • Darvin Yoder

    This discussion is a month old and no one responded to your question about the word “empire”. I’m with you that it is the best word we have a present–others may emerge over time. We’ll see.

  • disqusaccount1981

    Great article. I never had the courage to remain seated, but sometime during my early adult life, God convicted me of pledging allegiance to the flag. He told me it was idolatry, and as I began studying His Word, I became convinced that this was true. Thank you for your encouragement in this matter.

    I wish more Christians understood that a rejection of such a pledge is not a rejection of the work of Jesus Christ. Too many tie allegiance to government with the allegiance to God.

  • Larry Poindexter

    First, in the first centuries of the church, the Caesars believed that they were divine, and therefore required people to worship and honor them as a Son of God. The Roman banners and seals were symbolic of this Caesar worship, and so the early Christians were right to reject it. Today, however, in flying a flag or saying the Pledge, nobody is stating that they believe the flag, the President of the United States, or even the United States itself, is divine. So flying a flag and saying the pledge are not, in my opinion, idolatrous.
    Second, and more importantly, refusing to fly a flag or say the Pledge of Allegiance today is not going to get anyone killed. At most, you might be considered unpatriotic. If we really wanted to find some idolatrous practice that was equivalent to what the early Christians faced, it would have to be something that might result in our persecution and death if we did it (or refused to do it).

    • Teena Marie Neal Griffin

      I think we need to take all idolatry seriously, not just the ones we can be killed for. In some of the American church, to refuse to stand for the pledge is nearly considered unchristian. All your values are brought into question. I can’t help but think our years of saying the pledge helps add to that.