The “Prayer For Our Country” (or “Prayer For The Country” or “…The Nation”) takes place in synagogues across America (and elsewhere) every Saturday. Those of us who have been to synagogue are familiar with its text. On the face of it, it’s a platitudinous interlude before returning to the religious task at hand. But the history of the text and its uses reveal a deep insecurity informed by years of persecution at the hands of both the state and the ungoverned masses.
The prayer has likely been around in some capacity since the Jews were exiled to Babylon – in the book of Jeremiah, the prophet instructs the newly exiled Jews: “Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf; for in its welfare you will have welfare.” In an essay on the development of the prayer, Jonathan D. Sarna writes that “the uniquely plaintive quality of many of these prayers, beseeching God to incline the heart of the sovereign to treat Jews benevolently, bespeaks the distinctive political realities of Diaspora Jewish life. ‘Throughout medieval Christian Europe,’ Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi observes, ‘the Jews inevitably, yet willingly, allied themselves to the Crown as the best, and, ultimately, the only guarantor of stability and security.’” The prayer reveals a dual agenda – the state (or the monarchy) was the best and only protector the Jews had against the violence of the mob, and so they threw their allegiance in with the state. But at the same time, Jews were subject to state violence as well – the prayer thus is not simply a plea for the protection of the state and its rulers, but also for these rulers to uphold the values and institutions that, at least ostensibly, offer a degree of protection to the Jewish community. Hence, “Let your blessing pour out on this land and on all officials of this country who are occupied, in good faith, with the public needs” is followed immediately by “Instruct them from your Torah’s laws, enable them to understand your principles of justice…”
The forced patriotism of the prayer is a product of exile – just as the convert is often the most zealous, the exile or transplant can sometimes be the most outwardly patriotic. It’s a need to be accepted, to exaggerate the performance so that there can be no mistake. This behavior is understandable when imposed from within an exiled or immigrant community, but when imposed from the outside it becomes something entirely different.
Such is the case of the Pledge of Allegiance – a reflection of America’s deeply embarrassing insecurities and equally embarrassing means of dealing with them. The pledge, in its current form (minus two changes) was written by Baptist minister and Christian Socialist Francis Bellamy in 1892 on the occasion of the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ arrival in America. The pledge was, according to Bellamy, a reaction against the “low ebb” of patriotism in the late 19th century. It was a means of fostering (one might say, imposing) patriotism on those most disposed to following directives – schoolchildren.
The original text, which read, “I pledge allegiance to my Flag and the Republic for which it stands, one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all,” was a success in schools across the country, but it wasn’t until 1942 that the pledge was officially recognized by Congress (the text would be amended one more time in 1954 when “under God” was added after “indivisible”) – making this the pledge’s official 75th anniversary.
If we gloss the societal issues at the time of the authorship, spread, and adoption of the pledge, we can gain some insight into the forces that inspired each, and why the pledge is so enduring. The pledge was written just after the reconstruction era, and the “one nation, indivisible” part is, according to Bellamy, a reflection of post-reconstruction insecurities. While Bellamy, a Christian Socialist, envisioned the pledge as a sort of equality promoting credo (he stopped short of adding the word “equality” to the pledge – he thought the country was not ready for the word, and that “liberty and justice for all” implicitly promoted equality anyway. Of course, “for all” is a loosely defined idea), it began to take on more specific political purposes.
The pledge began to rise in prominence during America’s great wave of immigration – when Jewish immigrants, immigrants from central and southern and eastern Europe, and Chinese immigrants were entering the country in unprecedented numbers. The racist Immigration Act of 1924, which placed severe immigration quotas on Eastern European Jews and Southern Europeans and banned African immigrants (de facto) and Arab and Asian immigrants as well (de jure), coincided roughly with the change in the pledge from “my flag” to “the flag of the United States of America” – changed so that new immigrants would not be confused as to whose flag they were required to pledge their allegiance to. The pledge in this period was a reflection of a deep fear, rooted in anti-Semitism and racism, of changing demographics. That the historically racist Daughters of the American Revolution were ardent proponents of the pledge seems to be a clue here as to the pledge adopters’ motivations. “Under God,” today the most controversial aspect of the pledge, was added during the Cold War as an expression of anti-communist anxiety – communist atheism could only be combatted by a renewed, and enforced, expression of (Christian) religiosity.
Now, with the election of Donald Trump, there have been a few articles, mostly from right wing outlets, highlighting parents who don’t want their children to recite the pledge in school. Trump himself made the pledge a campaign issue back in September – saying at a rally “I will work with the American Legion to help to strengthen respect for our flag. You see what’s happening. It’s very, very sad… We want young Americans to recite the pledge of allegiance.” The statement was a direct reaction to the whole Colin Kaepernick non-issue, but, the mobilization of the pledge against perceived disloyalty is nothing new. And people have a lot to be “disloyal” about these days – they are ashamed of their buffoonish misogynistic racist xenophobic president, they see the pledge as an exclusionary tactic directed against immigrants, the flag has become the banner of perpetual war, and so on. Again the anxieties of the time come to the fore in the form of pro-pledge rhetoric – anxiety about globalization, about demographics (America has always been insecure in its multifarious ethnic makeup, and the xenophobic animosity that has recently taken the spotlight has always been around – sometimes we’re just better at ignoring it) about changing mores, about the waxing and waning of religious life in the public sphere. People complain about the politicization of the pledge, a venerated patriotic institution, but it has always been political – how could it be otherwise? Parents who do not want their kids reciting the pledge are right to feel this way – children should not recite the pledge of allegiance at all, not now, not ever.
The strongest argument for eradicating the pledge was made, perhaps inadvertently by Justice Robert Jackson (who, incidentally, was the chief prosecutor for the United States in the Nuremberg Trials) in the 1943 Supreme Court case West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette.
In 1940, the Supreme Court ruled against a group of Jehovah’s Witnesses who were expelled from school for refusing to say the pledge, which they considered to be akin to idol worship. This was before “under God” was added to the pledge. The argument was that the whole ceremony was quasi religious – which of course, like all symbol veneration, it is. In 1943, however the same court overruled the 1940 decision in a virtually identical case and ruled that it is unconstitutional to compel students to recite the pledge.
Justice Robert Jackson wrote the majority opinion in the 1943 case – let’s consider three of his most pertinent arguments from the opinion:
“We are dealing with a compulsion of students to declare a belief. They are not merely made acquainted with the flag salute so that they may be informed as to what it is or even what it means. The issue here is whether this slow and easily neglected route to aroused loyalties constitutionally may be short-cut by substituting a compulsory salute and slogan…”
“That they are educating the young for citizenship is reason for scrupulous protection of Constitutional freedoms of the individual, if we are not to strangle the free mind at its source and teach youth to discount important principles of our government as mere platitudes.”
“Here, it is the State that employs a flag as a symbol of adherence to government as presently organized. It requires the individual to communicate by word and sign his acceptance of the political ideas it thus bespeaks. Objection to this form of communication, when coerced, is an old one, well known to the framers of the Bill of Rights.”
The pledge, in other words, is patriotism secured by decree, which is to say it is not secure and it is not patriotism at all but rather patriotism’s performance. Performances, of course, simulate the real and eventually leave their marks all the same. Despite the rote nature of the pledge and its meaninglessness as far as the average child is concerned, it still sets up the flag, the metonymic object of state power, as an object of veneration, as a thing that intrudes daily upon one’s life. And so the performance of patriotism is meaningless as far as patriotism is concerned – but the pledge, Jackson argues, is less about patriotism than about obedience. It is not the content of the pledge that matters but the act of saying it – not loyalty to the country, but loyalty to the order.
The daily recitation of the pledge begins the process by which people become subservient to the demands and morality of the state not through ideology but simply by repetition – it is nothing more than the unfreedom of the individual reproducing itself behind the rhetoric of freedom. It begins the process by which, to paraphrase Adorno, the pressures of conformity weighing on the individual release the individual from demands on itself. Something that America has in common with the world’s dictatorial regimes is an obsession with symbols, with performance. The national anthem at sports games, the symbolic patriotism of consumer choices (buy Ford, buy Coke), the vapid rhetoric of unity pushed by advertisers – they are subtle expressions obedience. The pledge of allegiance, by contrast, is not subtle, though its means and aims are the same. It is not overwrought, I think, to throw our hats in with the Frankfurt School in identifying in a seemingly innocuous behavior the kernel of fascism – the mechanical, the abnegation of autonomy, the performance as the thing itself, all lead to the reduction of the individual to a thing, an object. In public schools across the country, children are reduced to objects before the flag – required to perform daily, like automatons, a meaningless action.
But the United States is not a totalitarian regime and the pledge is not compulsory. We should concede the first point (though capitalism is totalitarian in its own, more subtle way), but the second, while legally true, is hardly true in practice. Time for the pledge of allegiance is still mandated in public schools in 43 of the 53 U.S. territories and states, though teachers cannot compel a student to recite it. But children are too often not made aware of the possibility of dissent (I certainly wasn’t) nor is a young child predisposed to stake out ideological territory separate from his or her peers and authority figures. The pledge thus remains, de facto, compulsory.
It is a platitude to say that this country was founded on dissent and that dissent remains its highest ideal. Theoretically yes, the freedom of dissent is the best that America has to offer. In practical terms, dissent seems to be venerated in this country only when it confirms the powers that be – to borrow from Adorno again, “In the end, glorification of splendid underdogs is nothing other than the glorification of the splendid system that makes them so.”
But we can honor the ideal of dissent, at least in name if not in action, by repealing these 43 laws, and by discontinuing the practice of reciting the pledge from here on out. We can begin to allow our children to choose loyalty, to choose something — to foster, early and often, the ideals of freedom that we still, somewhat half heartedly, pretend to hold dear.
There is nothing wrong with loving your country — it’s desirable, really. But a country – a proper country – earns loyalty and love through action. The pledge reveals the central, humiliating lie of American life – this country has not earned its loyalty, not from everyone, and thus demands it. Now, as ever, the pledge rings false, and everyone who recites the pledge in bad faith is debased by its demand. In the end, this is perhaps the best argument against the pledge – it is humiliating.