Reading Time: 5 minutes

[Another favorite in a series from the archives while I’m too busy to think. Next new post on Groundhog Day.]

First appeared on March 11, 2008

Yesterday I read through a parenting book called How to Raise an American. The book is full of helpful advice for raising children with an unthinking allegiance to the nation of your choice. This one is pitched at the United States, but the techniques described will work equally well — and have worked equally well — to produce unquestioning loyalty to almost any political entity. Lithuanian, are you? Just change the relevant facts, dates and flags, and this book will help you create a saluting servant of Lithuania, singing the National Hymn with pride:

Lithuania, my homeland, land of heroes!
Let your Sons draw strength from the past.
Let your children follow only the paths of virtue,
working for the good of their native land and for all mankind.

(To foster an even higher degree of rabid Lithumania, leave out the part about ‘all mankind.’ Pfft.)

It goes without saying that the same techniques promoted in this book fostered unthinking allegiance to Germany in the 1930s, China in the 1950s, and probably Genghis Khan in the 1220s, for that matter. These are irrelevant, of course, because we are very, very good and they were all very, very bad.

All the same, I’d prefer my kids forgo unthinking allegiance in favor of thoughtful critical engagement. That way, if our nation ever did do something bad — hypothetically, campers, hypothetically — my kids would be in a position to challenge the bad thing, though all around them salute and sing.

It’s Kohlberg’s sixth and highest level of moral development — to be guided by universal principle, even at a high personal cost, to do what’s right instead of what is popular, patriotic, or otherwise rewarded by those around you.


During her after-school snack several weeks ago, Delaney (6) asked, “What does ‘liberty’ mean?”

I realized right away why she would ask about ‘liberty’ and was once again ashamed of myself in comparison to my kids. I don’t think I pondered the meaning of the Pledge of Allegiance until I was well into middle school. When I was her age, I’m certain that I thought “EyePlejjaleejins” was one word that meant something like “Hey, look at the flag.” I certainly didn’t know I was promising undying loyalty to something.

“Liberty means freedom,” I said. “I means being free to do what you want as long as you don’t hurt someone else.”

“Oh, okay.” Pause. “What about ‘justice’?”

“Justice means fairness. If there is justice, it means everybody gets treated in a fair way.”

“Oh! So when we say ‘with liberty and justice for all,’ it means ‘everybody should be free and everybody should be fair.'”

“That’s the idea.”

“Hmm,” she said. “I like that.”

I like it too. A fine, fine idea. I also like the idea that the next time Laney said the Pledge, she had a little more knowledge of just what she was pledging her allegiance to.

There’s an email that circulates quite a bit during the times we are asked to stand united against [INSERT IMPLACABLE ENEMY HERE] — the text of a speech by the comedian Red Skelton in which he recounts the words of an early teacher of his. The teacher had supposedly noticed the students going through the rote recitation of the pledge and decided to explain, word for word, what it meant:

It would have been interesting, even instructive, if Skelton had held up a photo of himself and his class saluting the flag, which for the first 50 years was done like so:

bellamy salute

This gesture was replaced with the hand-over-heart, for some reason, in 1942.

Delivered in 1969, Skelton’s piece is a bit saccharine in the old style, of course. And I’ll refrain from answering his rhetorical question at the end, heh. But the idea itself — of wanting kids to understand what they are saying — I’m entirely in favor of that.

Getting kids to understand what the pledge means solves one of the four issues I have with the Pledge of Allegiance. There is the “under God” clause, of course (which the Ninth Circuit court essentially called a constitutional no-brainer before wimping out on procedural grounds) — but that’s the least of my concerns.

Far worse is the fact that it is mandated, either by law, policy, or social pressure. No one of any age should be placed in a situation where a loyalty oath is extracted by force, subtle or otherwise.

Worse than that is something I had never considered before I heard it spelled out by Unitarian Universalist minister (and Parenting Beyond Belief contributor) Kendyl Gibbons several years ago, at the onset of the latest Iraq War, in a brilliant sermon titled “Why I’m Not Saying the Pledge of Allegiance Anymore.” At one point she noted how important integrity is to humanism:

One of the most basic obligations that I learned growing up as a humanist was to guard the integrity of my given word. Who and what I am as a human being is not predicated on the role assigned to me by a supernatural creator; neither am I merely a cog in the pre-ordained workings of some cosmic machine. Rather, I am what I say I am; I am the loyalties I give, the promises I keep, the values I affirm, the covenants by which I undertake to live. To give my loyalties carelessly, to bespeak commitments casually, is to throw away the integrity that defines me, that helps me to live in wholeness and to cherish the unique worth and dignity of myself as a person….We had better mean what we solemnly, publicly say and sign.

And then, the central issue — that the pledge is to a flag, when in fact it should be to principles, to values. One hopes that the flag stands for these things, but it’s too easy for prcinples to slip and slide behind a symbol. A swastika symbolized universal harmony in ancient Buddhist and Hindu iconography, then something quite different in Germany of the 1930s and 40s. Better to pledge allegiance to universal harmony than to the drifting swastika.

The same is true of a flag — any flag. Here’s Kendyl again:

I will not give my allegiance to a flag; it is too flimsy a thing, in good times or in bad; if it is even a symbol for the values I most cherish, that is only because of the sacrifices that others have made in its name. I will not commit the idolatry of mistaking the flag for the nation, or the nation for the ideals. Yet I must find an abiding place for my loyalty, lest it evaporate into the mist of disincarnate values, powerless to give any shape to the real lives that we live in the real world. Therefore my allegiance is to my country as an expression of its ideals.

To the extent that the republic for which our flag stands is faithful to the premises of its founding and to the practices that have evolved over two centuries to safeguard our freedoms and equal justice, it has my loyalty, my devotion, even my pride. But to the extent that it is a finite and imperfect expression of the ideals to which my allegiance is ultimately given, to the extent that it falls into deceit and self-deception, into arrogance and coercion and violence, into self-serving secrecy and double standards of justice, to that extent my loyalty must take the form of protest, and my devotion must be expressed in dissent.

It remains to this day one of the most eloquent and powerful speeches I have ever heard. And it continues to motivate me to raise children who pledge their allegiance conditionally rather than blindly. That will make their eventual allegiances all the more meaningful.

The complete text of Kendyl’s talk is here.

Dale McGowan is chief content officer of OnlySky, author of Parenting Beyond Belief, Raising Freethinkers, and Atheism for Dummies, and founder of Foundation Beyond Belief (now GO Humanity). He holds a...

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