Saturday, June 07, 2008

The Pledge Project: Liberty and Justice for All

In debating whether to have a Pledge of Allegiance, another view that I encounter comes from those who protest the Pledge, not because of the words 'under God', but because of the words 'liberty and justice for all'.

These people come in two major stripes.

The first group says, "I do not say the last six words of the Pledge, 'with liberty and justice for all', because we do not have liberty and justice for all. We are engaged in a great deal of injustice. Saying that this is a nation of liberty and justice for all is a lie.'

The second group says that they do not say the Pledge at all for substantially the same reason.

These people miss an important fact about the Pledge. A pledge to "one nation . . . with liberty and justice for all' is not a statement that we are actually a nation with liberty and justice for all. It is a statement that we should be a nation with liberty and justice for all.

Consider the first group – the group that says the Pledge but leaves the last six words off because 'we are not a nation with liberty and justice for all'. These people are still pledging allegiance to the United States. These people are still pledging allegiance to 'one nation under God'. Yet, if their interpretation is correct, they are pledging allegiance to a nation that is both, at the same time, 'under God' and 'without liberty and justice for all'. Their interpretation of the Pledge would be ideal for a theocratic tyranny.

Yet, these people in creating and in reciting this pledge, think that they are protesting tyranny and injustice. By their own statements, they are pledging allegiance to tyranny and injustice.

Those who refuse to say the Pledge at all on the grounds that lack liberty and justice for all have a more consistent (and sensible) view. At least they are not pledging allegiance to a nation 'under God' but without liberty and justice for all.

Yet, their refusal to recite the Pledge in virtue of their belief that we do not have perfect liberty and justice implies that everybody who says the Pledge believes that we have somehow reached a state of perfect liberty and justice. Yet, I doubt if you will find anybody who actually holds that view. Even those who are the most vocal advocates of saying the pledge can generally find some remaining injustice in this country worth complaining about (and in need of fixing).

The view that the Pledge states we have perfect liberty and justice, and that it is not to be said because it simply is not true, is an absurdity.

The fact of the matter is that the Pledge is not descriptive, it is prescriptive. It does not say that we do have perfect liberty and justice. It says that we should have perfect liberty and justice – or as perfect as we can get it. We may fall short of this ideal (as most people, and most nations, fall short of the ideals they set for themselves). However, the ideal is something to strive for.

Yet, this fact carries an important implication. In the same way that 'liberty and justice for all' is prescriptive, 'one nation under God' is prescriptive as well. By inserting 'under God' into the Pledge, the government is telling its citizens (and, in particular, young children who have a habit of accepting the claims made by authority figures such as government teachers without questioning it) that the nation should be a nation 'under God'. We may fall short of this ideal, but it is an ideal worth striving for, according to the government.

Now, when the government prescribes 'liberty and justice for all', this is another way of saying that we should strive to establish a country of liberty and justice for all. So, when the government prescribes 'one nation under God', this is another way of saying that we should strive to establish a country 'under God'.

Yet, somehow, we are supposed to believe that the government can prescribe 'one nation under God' without it being the case that the government is trying to establish 'one nation under God'. Yet, ask those people whether the government's attempt to prescribe 'liberty and justice for all' without it being the case that the government is trying to establish 'liberty and justice for all'.

Does the person you are talking to want to deny that the Pledge prescribes 'one nation under God', and that this is the same as trying to establish 'one nation under God', answer, "So, you believe that this country is already a state with perfect liberty and justice.'

When they deny this, tell them that they have only two options. Either the Pledge says that we already have perfect liberty and justice for all, or it says that we should strive for (establish, to whatever degree we can) liberty and justice for all. Either the Pledge says that we already are one nation under God, or it says that we should strive to be (establish, to whatever degree we can) one nation under God.

Any argument that the Pledge of Allegiance is descriptive ends up in this absurdity that we already have 'liberty and justice for all'. Any argument that avoids this absurdity yields the conclusion that 'one nation under God' is prescriptive - an attempt to establish 'one nation under God' just as the Pledge is an attempt to establish 'liberty and justice for all'.

4 comments:

Tommy said...

The way I see it, the "with liberty and justice for all" is the ideal for which we should strive for, so when we say the pledge, we are affirming our allegiance to the ideal of what America should be, even if present-day America does not live up to that ideal.

BTW, since you are focusing on the Pledge of late, I have an idea for you if you think it worthwhile (and I apologize in advance if you or one of your commenters already mentioned it) is to do something like the Blasphemy project where people submitted videos of themselves denying the holy spirit. How about a video Pledge Project wherein people submit videos of themselves saying the Pledge of Allegiance with "under God" omitted? Set a goal of 1,000 videos.

FWIW, if I have the time tomorrow, I plan to do videos of myself and my 5 year old daughter saying the Pledge sans "under God". I've already taught her to say it that way.

Regards,

TK

martino said...

Hi Tommy

As an outsider in this debate - not living in the USA or being US citizen - can I say that I think your suggestion is a very good idea and will expand the visibility of this project enormously. My sense of irony suggests using an online pledge service to encourage the making of these youtube videos - such as the one at www.pledgebank.com

Joyce said...

Until meeting you in FI, I never had a dialogue with atheists (at least, not a civil one. LOL!) the way that I have had with you guys. It's great to read your very legitimate points and I thank you for letting me think about things (as a Christian) that I never really considered before.

You've helped open my eyes to the fact that just because something doesn't infringe on my rights doesn't mean it doesn't infringe on the rights of others.

I'm glad I found your blog.

scott gray said...

you've talked about descriptive and prescriptive interpretations of the text, and of the act of pledging, but there are other interpretations as well. there's an ontological interpretation, that the pledger believes these to be 'true' (akin to descriptive). there's also a confessional interpretation, that the pledger is proclaiming his/her love or affinity for 'something' (nation, maybe) without believing the specifics of the text per se. the confessional interpretation is about the loyalty of the others in the room to the nebulous 'something.'