Sometimes what happens in the world of sports becomes front-page news. Case in point, the recent controversy about football players kneeling instead of standing when the national anthem is played before a game. Though the kneeling is a protest against racism, critics decry their lack of patriotism. The US president used a crude profanity to describe them.
The usual definition of the word “patriotism” is “love of country.” Americans express that love in many ways: singing patriotic songs, displaying flags, reciting the Pledge of Allegiance. Many learned to say the pledge without paying much attention to what they were saying.
As a youngster, I never considered its implications until I learned that a Mennonite friend was forbidden by his parents to say it.
“Why don’t his parents want him to say the pledge of allegiance?” I asked my dad.
“Well,” he explained, “they believe it’s wrong to give allegiance to anyone except the Lord.” I couldn’t comprehend that until some years later.
I consider myself a patriot. I loved my country when I was a boy and I still do. But I’m troubled that any institution, including the government of my country, would insist on my allegiance if it would be in conflict with my primary allegiance to God.
The Pledge of Allegiance originated in the administration of Benjamin Harrison when patriotic exercises were encouraged in schools to mark the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ “discovery” of America. It first appeared, with two slight differences in wording from the present form, in an 1892 periodical, Youth’s Companion. The pledge soon spread throughout the public school system. Many states made daily recitation mandatory. Children of religious minorities who refused sometimes were expelled from school. The Supreme Court ruled in 1940 that states were justified in requiring all students to participate, regardless of religious convictions, but that decision was reversed in 1941.
In 1954, when I was in junior high school, the phrase “under God” was added. We stumbled over the new phrase for a few weeks. I stumble over it still, but for a different reason. The phrase “one nation, under God” seems to me to be misguided piety. There is also a subtle implication that the words “under God” mean that God is on our side whenever we disagree with other nations.
The people of ancient Israel made the same error. God is on our side, they assumed. After all, we are more just and good and religious than anyone else. But the Hebrew prophets shouted, No! All nations were under God. The prophet Isaiah declared on God’s behalf: “I am coming to gather all nations and tongues” (Isaiah 66:18).
Jesus carried the prophets’ message a step further. A good religious person asked him, “Lord, will only a few be saved?” (Luke 13:23). Jesus’ response must have made his listeners wince. It isn’t the ones who think they’ve got it made who’ll be first in the kingdom. At the kingdom feast, the tables are turned. Tax collectors and prostitutes are invited in ahead of the highbrow religious leaders (Matthew 21:31). Not only that, said Jesus, people will come from east and west and north and south and will eat in the kingdom of God (Luke 13:29). He would no doubt say the same to Americans who suppose that “under God” in the pledge points to divine favor for our country above any other country.
Of what use, then, is the Pledge of Allegiance? At its best it serves as an ideal to be achieved—that of freedom and equal treatment for all and unity of purpose.
I do love my country. When I am invited to recite the pledge, I stand and say what I can in good conscience. I say something like this: “I pledge allegiance to the values of freedom and justice for all in the United States of America.”
That’s the best I can do.
Ken Gibble, a retired Church of the Brethren pastor, lives in Camp Hill, Pa. He blogs at https://inklingsbyken.wordpress.com.