I grew up saying the pledge of allegiance in class each day in elementary school and at assemblies, games and civic events throughout high school and college. Yet from the time I was old enough to think about it, I felt vaguely uncomfortable about the pledge. Though it is not explicitly religious, reciting it always had a liturgical feel. We were required to take off our hats, place our hands on our hearts and focus our gaze on the flag. “I pledge allegiance to the flag…and to the republic for which it stands…” It was very much like reciting the Apostles Creed in church-except we were not in church and we were not all Christians. Perhaps that was the point. As different as we all were in terms of our faith (or no faith) traditions, we were nevertheless united in this “pledge of allegiance” to one nation under god (whichever one that might have been). If this wasn’t religion, it sure felt like it. Consequently, it was a little unsettling for a strict Missouri Synod Lutheran like me raised to believe that one ought not to be involved in synchronistic worship.
In spite of these misgivings, however, I could still justify the pledge on a very high level of abstraction. We all have worldly loyalties and commitments of varying degrees solemnized by a formal statement of some kind. I pledged to be faithful to my wife until death parts us. When I took out my first mortgage, I signed a pledge to the bank that I would make the all the payments in a timely fashion as spelled out in the note. Clearly, I am obliged to share with my fellow citizens the expense of government that provides the many services and protections making our shared life together possible. So, what is wrong with articulating this shared civil commitment in a verbal pledge?
If that is all there were to it, I could live with the pledge of allegiance. But I am no longer convinced that the pledge is a benign recital of civic duty. It purports to demand much more. Allegiance, as defined by Mirriam Webster, is first and foremost the obligation of a feudal vassal to his liege lord. It harkens back to a medieval social arrangement under which peasants were obliged to live on their lord’s land and give him homage, labor, and a share of the produce in exchange for military protection. With the rise of nationalism, this duty of allegiance was transferred to the nation state. Like the liege lord, the state commands obedience and a willingness on the part of its citizens to kill and die for it. Nations, whatever form they may take, all have one common denominator: they are the sole agents authorized to take human life. Homicide is not murder when committed under color of law by appropriate authorities. In this respect, the state usurps the prerogative of God. That alone should cause us to wonder whether it is appropriate for a disciple of Jesus to pledge unconditional loyalty of this kind to any state.
Coupled with the loyalty every nation state demands, however, is the myth of American exceptionalism and its next of kin, white supremacy. The belief that America is uniquely destined to dominate the continent led to the ruthless ethnic cleansing of Native American nations. Belief in the superiority of the “white race” justified the slave trade and the use of slave labor to drive the nation’s economy to unprecedented production of wealth, but only for the master class. These two myths have provided the rationalization for decades of Jim Crow segregation and now drive the cries of “send her back” bellowed by that howling white lynch mob known as the GOP base. White supremacy is not a long discarded doctrine of the distant past. It is alive and well normalizing racism, bringing neo-nazi extremism into mainline politics and driving the inhumane practices of deportation and family division at our border. American exceptionalism insists that we must turn a blind eye to these realities and continue to insist, as the saying goes, “My country right or wrong.” That sounds very much like a disfunctional and warped sort of religious faith. I have therefore reached the conclusion that American nationalism is a rival religion demanding from us uncritical faith and obedience blind to the realities of our history. Thus, pledging allegiance to the flag of the United States of America is idolatry. For that reason, I can’t do it anymore and I won’t.
I think that American Christians need to acknowledge that these ideologies of American exceptionalism and white supremacy have been propped up and legitimized with biblical imagery, often with the aid of the church. America fancies itself the new Israel driving the Canaanites from the land. America sees itself as the “chosen people” with a God given mission to tame the wilderness. America’s wars are all “holy wars” and our soldiers are martyrs making the ultimate sacrifice for that god we call America. We, the American clergy (yours truly included), have been only to eager to bless our nation’s carnage with invocations and benedictions on Veterans Day and Memorial Day observances, thereby feeding the lie that our soldiers all died in the noble service of protecting our freedoms though, in fact, the lives of these young people were too often squandered in wars of aggression. This has to end if we are going to witness credibly to the just and peaceful reign of Christ.
I understand that refusing to take the pledge of allegiance is commonly understood as nothing short of treason. “If you hate America so much, why don’t you go somewhere else?” one of my exasperated friends recently asked me. Rest assured, I do not hate America. Following Jesus leaves no room for hatred. Though America has made itself an enemy to me, I am determined not to be an enemy to America. There is much about America that I love, such as its vast wilderness areas faithfully preserved by the United States Parks Department. I love the many vibrant communities and neighborhoods throughout this diverse land and the musical, artistic and cultural contributions they continue to make. I honor and respect the sacrifices made by so many individuals whose words and actions call this nation to follow the lead of its better angels and reject the dark and sinister forces of greed, racism and imperialism that have driven it historically. I will continue to vote, pay my taxes and support government agencies providing the services we need to thrive and protecting the most vulnerable among us from the ravages of poverty, sickness and exploitation. I will continue to pray for this country and its leaders because, as the prophet Jeremiah points out, its welfare is the welfare of us all. Though I cannot give America my allegiance, I will always offer it my love.
I know that these commitments of mine to America do not rise to the level of what many consider appropriate patriotism. That doesn’t bother me, however. I know of no instance in which Jesus calls upon his disciples to be patriotic. He does, however, call upon his followers to love the Lord God with all one’s heart, soul, mind and strength. The word all leaves no room for any another sovereign, least of all one whose violence and injustice oppress the most vulnerable among us and wounds the very Body of Christ. Jesus calls upon me to love my neighbor as myself. I can’t square the parable of the Good Samaritan with cries of “America first,” with turning away refugees in desperate need of sanctuary or with the increasingly racist rhetoric spewing from the mouths of America’s leaders. So I am done with the pledge of allegiance. Henceforth, when invited to partake in that ritual I will, most respectfully, remain seated and silent.