I don’t know exactly how long it’s been, but it’s been about at least a decade since I’ve recited the Pledge of Allegiance. It was when my son was checking out Boy Scouts (it didn’t take) and of course one of the first things you do there is recite the pledge. That’s fine. Makes sense. So we stood up, I started those words, and suddenly I was massively uncomfortable. Something came over me that started within me. The truth is that I don’t pledge allegiance to our flag nor to the republic for which it stands. This may sound overly pious or “high and mighty”, but as a Christian, my allegiance is to a whole other kingdom, one not from this world. To say those words felt idolatrous to me at that moment, and at least since then, I have not spoken those words. It’s like there is a block in me to get them out. My soul won’t allow it.
I want to be clear. This is a choice for me. I’m not comfortable saying it, so I don’t. I never told my son he shouldn’t, nor have I ever prevented anyone else from saying it, and I’m fine if other Christians want to say it, but with one exception: As a pastor, I will not allow it in worship. But when the scouts hold an Eagle Scout ceremony in our sanctuary, go right ahead. There’s really nothing wrong with it on its face (other than the “under God” addition. The first amendment has something to say about that).
So when my town’s city council voted to remove the pledge from the opening of their meetings as a matter of inclusion, I applauded. I felt uncomfortable with its recitation at the one City Council meeting I’ve been to. However, I also thought it might not be a good PR move, especially doing so at a meeting where the Mayor was absent, and that proved to be correct beyond any measure than I think any of us thought possible. But I affirmed their decision because when I am in a situation where we are called to recite the pledge as a group, I feel massively uncomfortable. There simply is an implicit pressure (and sometimes even explicit pressure) to participate. Quite honestly, feeling pressure to recite the Pledge of Allegiance feels to me like an infringement on my religious freedom. It literally goes against my understanding and practice of Christian spirituality.
If you follow the local news, you know this thing blew up. Way up. Fox News picked up on it and ate it up like a juicy steak, which led to the president seeing it and tweeting out false statements that the pledge is “under siege” in St. Louis Park, MN. This led to a national campaign against St. Louis Park wherein anything the city posted on their Facebook page was inundated with comments about the pledge, some of which were outright vile and even violent. Our city council members were flooded with phone calls and emails, many of them threatening and violent, from people across the country, which impeded their work to actually run our city. And it didn’t take long for people to realize that St. Louis Park is in Ilhan Omar’s district, so racist and xenophobic calls for her removal and deportation rang out as speculation ran rampant that this was all her fault.
As this went on for weeks, the city was left with no choice. Their work had been hijacked by a conservative circus, and in order to get them and their big top out of town and out of their way so that they could get back to work, they voted unanimously last night to reinstate the pledge. I didn’t like it, but the more I heard from council members, the more it made sense. And lest you think they “caved”, watch their statements during last night’s meeting. Let’s just say they had words for our visitors. Here is just a little example from my Council Member, Margaret Rog:
“You visitors from Coon Rapids, Lakeville, Orono, Rochester, wherever you’re from. Y’all ought to take your energy for civic engagement to your own communities… I fully expect this conversation with will happen on our own terms and in our own time, but for now to protect the safety and productivity of our staff and community, and to refuse to be played like a pawn in a bully’s game any longer, I am in support of council member Miller’s recommendation.”
All of this leads me to two points:
One: This was never about the pledge. The pledge itself is being used as a pawn in this political game. These people are not concerned about generalized patriotism and “liberty and justice” for all. They are concerned about protecting the man who they think will protect their power and privilege in our culture. This was a campaign rally. Protestors flooded our town with “Trump Forever” signs, anti Ilhan Omar signs, and after the council voted to reinstate the pledge what did they do? They chanted “Trump 2020!” as they exited City Hall. It was disgusting.
For those of you who are truly patriotic, who genuinely love this country to the degree that you believe that it’s ok for us to have political disagreements, who believe it really is ok that I don’t say the pledge and vote on another side of the ticket, and who truly believe in free thought and speech and religion, know this: These “defenders of the pledge” weren’t defending the pledge. They were using it to prop up their candidate of choice in 2020. The perverted your pledge. They manipulated it for political purposes. And embedded in those purposes is (though not exclusively) racism and xenophobia. And in that sense, they defamed it. Don’t be fooled. They used your Pledge of Allegiance to link love of country with love of Trump. And if we are honest, I think we should be appalled by such a perversion of something that we claim is for all Americans.
Two: Part of the narrative that was spun in this is that the Pledge of Allegiance was under siege and being banned in St. Louis Park. People claimed that by the City Council not reciting it as a group before meetings they were being denied their right to say it. This is the kind of false equivalency on which our political climate thrives. Both sides eat this strategy up. The vote to remove it prevented no one from saying it, as evidenced by those who did say it at last night’s meeting.
The analogy I use here is prayer before a football game. If a coach calls a team together to pray, there is an implicit expectation that all do it. It’s a team event. But if it’s not led by or called upon by the coach, but a few players want to pray together before the game, then they have the freedom to do so (or they at least should). I believe this was the heart behind the City Council’s original vote. But by making it no longer an official “team” event, it got spun into it being “banned”, and that was simply not true.
Conversely, however, many of the pledge protestors repeatedly said, “no one’s forcing you to say it. If you don’t want to, then don’t say it.” While this may be legally true, it is patently false in practice. All I need to do here is ask, “how did that work for Collin Kaepernick and the national anthem?” Don’t tell me you’re ok with me sitting out. You’re not and you will make that abundantly clear.
But that’s what I’m doing from here on out. Sitting it out. Over the last decade when I was in a situation where the pledge was recited, I would stand so as to be respectful and polite and not make a scene. But I won’t even stand going forward. That pledge not only still feels idolatrous to me, it’s poisoned now. And all you folk who descended upon my town with threats to my council members and flags with Trump’s likeness cast upon them (a massive violation of flag code, by the way), you can thank yourselves for that. I’m done with the Pledge of Allegiance.
I’m not done with America, though. I do love this country. My heart hurts for it these days, but I do love it. It’s given me a lot. And so, no, I’m not going to “just leave”. I’m going to stay and actually work for “liberty and justice for all”, rather than merely pledge it.