Friday, September 7, 2007

Forced loyalty indentures patriotism

It’s an image that invokes the very essence of American culture. A classroom full of kids standing at attention, hands over their hearts, reciting the Pledge of Allegiance. If Norman Rockwell never painted such a scene, he should have. And if you grew up in the United States in the last 100 years, chances are you’ve participated in this ritual. Originally written in 1892 as an advertisement to sell flags for Columbus Day, the Pledge was adopted by Congress in 1942. But kids here in Texas get a double-dose of pledges. Not only are they avowing their commitment to our nation, but there’s a separate affirmation of devotion to the Great State of Texas. When I first heard of this tradition, I assumed this to be a holdover from our brief stint as a sovereign nation. Not so. In 1933, the Texas Legislature seemingly identified a hot-bed of disloyalists (perhaps a cabal of Okies encroaching south of the Red River) and decided that we needed everyone to express their devotion to the Lone Star State, along with our nation. In their original incarnations, neither the national pledge, nor Texas’ version found the need to invoke a deity to express one’s devotion. It wasn’t until 1954 that the phrase “under God” was added to, as President Eisenhower put it, “reaffirm the transcendence of religious faith in America’s heritage and future.” Now, fifty-odd years later, our Texas lawmakers have inserted a remarkably similar – and somewhat repetitive - phrase in the Texas pledge. "Honor the Texas flag; I pledge allegiance to thee, Texas, one state under God, one and indivisible." Plenty has been written about this latest modification. Many of the religious among us herald the inclusion as a return to the core values of our founding fathers. More liberal (albeit no less spiritual) elements point out that our founding fathers recognized the slippery slope of such inclusions and established rules against the government foisting any one religion – or any religion at all - on the public. Interestingly, it was a religious group, the Jehovah’s Witnesses - that first challenged the pledge on the grounds that it violated the Bible’s admonishment against idolatry. The most recent challenge to the state’s changes were brought by a pair of atheists. Strange bedfellows, indeed. But rather than going too far down that path, let’s consider why we have a Texas pledge at all, and why is it recited to the Flag? Only a handful of states have any kind of pledge. Georgia and Kentucky both have a pledge similar to ours, while Alaska has a whole song: Alaska’s Flag. When I was going to school in Oklahoma, the only pledge we had to learn were the words to Boomer Sooner (and it took some of us till the sixth grade to get those right). Perhaps Texas schoolchildren should count themselves lucky that all they have to recite is a couple of lines. But what is it about Texas that requires an affirmation of allegiance? Certainly our history is a bit more colorful than most, being the only state added to the Union by treaty. But do we really need to pledge our loyalty to the State? And what does that really mean? If I buy my wine from California, am I being disloyal to Texas? When I put on the crimson and cream at the Cotton Bowl every October, am I violating my pledge? An odd thing, these loyalty pledges. Where does one’s loyalty to one entity stop and another begin? It’s notable that in the enacting statute (Title 11, Subtitle A, Chapter 3100, Subchapter C, in case you’re interested), a distinction is made for men and women in military uniforms. They are directed to face the flag and salute like the rest of us, but are to remain silent. Presumably, this is to preclude any conflict due to their military Oath of Office. Compulsory loyalty oaths have been used throughout history, for both good and ill. Fortunately, there’s nothing in our state or national laws that compels anybody to recite either pledge. Sadly, our school board thinks otherwise, requiring a written request from a parent before excusing a student from making the two pledges. Lively is the debate over the inclusion of God in our two pledges. But we should give equal consideration to the meaning of all the words whenever we recite them. The next time you stand and face the flag, LISTEN to the words you’re reciting. Understand the commitment you’re making, or asking your children to make. Nobody can compel loyalty to any institution. At the end of the day, it’s a personal choice. And actions will speak far louder than any recitation of words.

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