One of the primary challenges of studying abroad is understanding the cultural norms of your host country. These may involve culture, history, food, or even common sayings and phrases. There are things that natives take for granted, but may be confusing and bizarre from the outside. This knowledge is rarely taught past a certain point, leaving international students behind in some ways. This series aims to help students understand things that many Americans take for granted.

One of the inspiring- and often maddening- things about living in a roiling, boisterous democracy like the United States is that nearly every institution and tradition is, at one point or another, held up and questioned.  A custom that some take for granted, that even passes for background noise, is suddenly thrust into the limelight to be gawked at and debated, with multiplying passions on every side.  This is the case with the Pledge of Allegiance.

The Pledge of Allegiance- more commonly known to generations of mumbly school children as the “pledgea legiance”- is a polarizing aspect of American life. Depending on what state, and sometimes what school district, you are in, you or your class may say it every morning, or you may never say it. There is a chance that some kids will say it, and others won’t. The Pledge is a perfect example of how debate works in America, and is a great way to understand the rowdy American political arena.

Pledge of Allegiance

In this Norman Rockwell painting, you can see the kids who are actually saying the Pledge, and those just mouthing the words.
Image from vk.com

The Pledge itself.

As said now, the Pledge is a brief little statement, barely the length of a couple of breaths, and will take you a shorter time to say than it takes to read this paragraph.

I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America and to the Republic for which it stands, one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.

On the surface, it doesn’t seem that controversial. After all, it isn’t militant. It isn’t making the speaker take a blood oath to defend the motherland, to bleed for its soil. And it certainly isn’t making any oath of loyalty to a particular person or office. It doesn’t say “I will always obey the President, our Great Father in Washington”. Nor is it legally binding in any sense. A person can say the Pledge and engage in idle chit-chat about secession without being held for perjury.  So why the controversy?

The religious aspect

For most people, the controversial part is those four words- “one nation under God”. By now, most people know that the Pledge, written in 1892, was without those four words until 1954, when it was inserted by Presidential decree as a counterweight against atheistic Communism. And that is important, but it is interesting to note that the first real challenge to the Pledge came not from the anti-religious, but from those who were too religious to say it.

In 1943, the Supreme Court decided on West Virginia Board of Education vs. Barnette, declaring that the school district couldn’t force Jehovah’s Witnesses to say the Pledge, because doing so was akin to what they believed was worshipping a false idol. Now, Jehovah’s Witnesses have never been a particularly large or powerful religious group in America, so their complaints were still at the fringe, but it was the first crack in the Pledge’s heretofore impenetrable armor. (It was also around this time that the tradition of raising your right hand in salute while reciting the Pledge was quietly done away with, given its awkward overseas echoes)

Throughout the years, legal action was taken by parents and groups who declared that the force students into saying the Pledge was unconstitutional, for a number of reasons. One was that the “one nation under God” was the state taking a stance on religion, which contravenes the First Amendment. Another was simply that forcing students into taking a stance on this one way or the other was not the role of the state, city, or school board, and so many schools dropped the issue altogether.

The case for

For supporters of making the Pledge mandatory, all this seems absurd and overblown. They maintain that saying the Pledge is harmless and promotes unity, helping to forge a shared sense of national purpose, and reminding people that we are all in this together. For many, the key word is “indivisible”, a calm and reassuring idea in a nation rent by political debate and that has already fought a gruesome Civil War.

In many areas, a compromise has been reached where there is a set time where students who choose to do say may recite the Pledge, while those who opt out are under no compulsion to do so. Opponents say this still goes too far, because it makes those who don’t say it the ones on the outside, forced to defend themselves as to why they won’t honor their country, and that even if there isn’t official pressure, there is certainly social pressure.

Learn from your classmates

So what does this teach you about America? One of the great things is that it shows there is no institution that can remain forever unchallenged, that things will always be questioned. One of the negative sides is that, on nearly every issue, battle lines will be drawn, and the opposing side will often be deformed into caricatures (“right-wing xenophobic bullies” or “left-wing America-hating atheists”).

If possible, talk to your classmates about this. Maybe ask a civics teacher to hold a debate on the issue. You’d be surprised about how many high school students have an opinion on this, and it would be a great insight into the way American political beliefs are shaped. For it is at this level- the day to day, grass-roots level, where the issues that eventually bubble up and take place on the news and in the halls of power, really begin. You can be on that ground floor.

 

The international student experience is both challenging and exciting. Whether you are a student considering studying in America, their parent, the host family, the Head of School, an international coordinator, or even a potential classmate, there are as many opportunities for confusion as there are to learn. The ISPA is here to help bridge that gap, to ensure that this opportunity and adventure is met with the highest level of success.