Thursday, June 05, 2008

The Pledge Project: Prayers and Promises

First, a note. My posting, "The Pledge Project: House Resolution 5872" was picked up in the Carnival of the Liberals today. The host wrote about the article:

I thought at first that this would be the same old same old on this topic, but I believe Alonso has some good points. If only someone in Congress would ever think of things this way!

This describes exactly what I am aiming for in this series. I do not want readers to come here and find a repeat of the same arguments that they have heard from a thousand other sources discussing this issue over the past fifty years. I want them to come here and find an approach to the issues of ‘under God’ in the pledge and 'In God We Trust' as the national motto that have been ignored (and unheard) for the past 50 years.

A part of this project is to create a repository of responses that readers can come back to once the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals hands out its decisions (in 25 days or less).

Some of the arguments that I want to respond to are those that are found in the State's oral arguments before the Court. Those arguments will undoubtedly enter into the public discussion once the debate hits the streets.

Today's post concerns a pair of arguments.

(1) That putting 'under God' in the Pledge of Allegiance makes it a prayer, and the Supreme Court has already ruled that prayer in public schools is unconstitutional.

(2) The words 'under God' in the Pledge do not make it a prayer. Rather, it makes reciting the Pledge of Allegiance no different than reciting the Declaration of Independence or singing the Star Spangled Banner – other patriotic expressions that contain a reference to a God. Whereas these latter items are permissible, the former must also be permissible.

Let me repeat the point that I am not interested in legal arguments in these points, but in moral arguments. The lawyers in making the arguments above followed them up by trying to provide evidence of how the court has ruled on prayer versus patriotic expressions such reading the Declaration of Independence. Mine is a moral argument, so I have no need for legal precedence. There is a distinction between what the law is and what the law ought to be, and this post is concerned with the moral question of what the law ought to be.

Prayers and Promises

I find it surprising how, in this debate, people overlook the most obvious facts.

Regardless of whether the Pledge is a prayer or a patriotic expression like reading the Declaration of Independence, the Pledge of Allegiance is a promise. A promise, in turn, is a part of a moral institution that carries with it certain implications. One of the major properties of a promise is that the person who makes a promise agrees to take on certain duties and obligations.

If I promise to pay you $5, then I acquire an obligation to provide you with $5. In general, if I make a promise to realize some state of affairs S, then I have given myself an obligation or a duty to realize that state of affairs S. So, if a child pledges allegiance to 'one nation under God', then she puts herself under an obligation to preserve or to create a state that can be described as 'one nation under God'.

We have legal scholars from one end of the country to the other arguing over whether the act that put 'under God' into the Pledge of Allegiance turned the pledge into a prayer. The comedian Red Skelton gave a speech that defenders of the pledge are very fond of where he worries that the term 'under God' might be construed as making the Pledge into a prayer and banning it from schools. In the oral arguments before the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, Michael Newdow (arguing that ‘under God’ is unconstitutional) took the time to provide quotes from Presidents and others to argue that the Pledge is a prayer and thus something the Supreme Court has already made unconstitutional.

However, not even a prayer has the property of putting the prayer-giver under an obligation.

Certainly, when a person prays she can make promises to God (or she can at least think that she is making promises to God). However, it is not in virtue of being a prayer that the agent adopts these obligations. It is in virtue of making a promise that the agent acquires obligations (or would have if there were a real God for her to make promises to).

I would like to know how it can be the case that it is wrong to ‘encourage’ (actually 'coerce') children into saying a prayer to God, but it cannot be wrong to 'encourage' a child to make a promise and, thus, incur an obligation to support 'one nation under God'. The prayer only asserts the existence of a God. A promise not only asserts that a God exists but puts the speaker under an obligations with respect to that entity.

The Second Elephant

At this point, I would like to introduce the second elephant in the room that everybody seems to be ignoring.

(1) The Pledge of Allegiance is a promise

(2) A promise to establish a state of affairs S (e.g. to pay you 5) is an act that puts the speaker under an obligation to realize state S.

(3) A promise to support 'one nation under God' is an act that puts one under an obligation to create a state of 'one nation under God'.

How can this act of putting children under an obligation to establish a state of 'one nation under God' not be an instance of Congress passing a law that seeks to establish religion?

Like I said, this blog is not concerned with Constitutional arguments but with moral arguments. So, I will leave it up to the Constitutional scholars to deal with the legal question of whether such an act, understood as having these qualities, violates the First Amendment.

My point, with respect to the moral case, is that any student who takes the Pledge of Allegiance puts herself under an obligation to realize a state of ‘one nation under God’, which is a quality not inherent to prayers.

Patriotic Documents and Anthems

This difference between the Pledge of Allegiance and prayer is also a difference between the Pledge of Allegiance and reading the Declaration of Independence or singing the National Anthem.

The mere reading of a document does not put the reader under any sort of obligation, even if he is reading a document that the author wrote in order to put the author of an obligation. If I write down on a piece of paper that I will pay Jane Smith five dollars, and you pick up the note and read it out loud, this does not put you under an obligation to pay Jane Smith five dollars.

A person who sings the Star Spangled Banner also does not put himself under any type of obligation.

This quality is reserved for those who make a promise – in this case, a promise to establish a state of 'one nation under God'.


I have no idea why the most obvious qualify of a Pledge of Allegiance – that it is a pledge and, thus, a speech act that puts the speaker under an obligation, has been so widely ignored to date. It appears to me to be a significant difference between a Pledge and a prayer, or a simple recital of a historic document or a song.

If there is a reason why this factor has not entered into the public debate, I would like to know what it is.

In the mean time, I think it is time for this fact to enter into the public debate.


nullifidian said...

(Disclosure: I'm not a US citizen) One thing that has often struck me about the PoA is that there often seems (from my outsider perspective) to be compulsion is its recitation, rather than an exercise in free choice.

Being compelled to issue such a promise, to me, seems to be antithetical to the PoA's own appeals to liberty and justice.

On the topic of the flag itself, it boggles me as to why those who insist on the inclusion of the offending phrase in the pledge don't do what the Saudi's did and have the damn thing imprinted on the national flag. With a (claimed) 80%+ supporting christian population, almost everyone should be behind that, no? And a nice little cross on the flag seems an obvious and impious omission on their part.

CrypticLife said...

I've often wondered about that as well, but originally I didn't wonder about it in context to the "Under God" part of the Pledge: I questioned it with regard to expatriates from other countries. Intra-company transferees, for example, will often send their children to public school. These children are also saying the pledge, even though they're not citizens and have no necessary intention of becoming citizens (actually, for temporary visas such as work visas, you're generally required to assert that you do NOT intend to reside permanently in the US, making a coerced pledge somewhat paradoxical).

When I've brought this up in general conversation with Americans, it's been completely ignored. Teachers have said, "Well, it's just polite."

Things like this cause me some despair over making change. To be honest, your post yesterday did as well: atheists are indeed the out-group, suffer from many of the disadvantages of that position, and it would be rather easy to hypocritically join the in-group. And though your presentation of it portrays it as a psychological problem, there are strong practical components to it. Schools have the future of our children in their hands. Sure, the pledge is essentially a mild form of abuse of a non-believing child, but there are worse transgressions a teacher or school could engage in.