Saying the Pledge of Allegiance: A Test of Citizenship?

Every so often a public debate occurs over the question of whether saying the Pledge of Allegiance aloud in public school classrooms should be mandated or abolished. As it stands, each school district is free to decide whether to require the Pledge to be recited aloud or not.

Those who want it to be recited usually do so because they feel that such recitation at once compels and displays patriotism. Students who say the Pledge in school will be more patriotic, in part because they are part of a town or city or district that demands public shows of patriotism, thus prioritizing them.

It’s unclear that reciting the Pledge each school morning really creates patriotism; anything performed by rote, without being explained and discussed and thought over, becomes just one more task to perform in the minds of the children saying it. The lack of explanation or discussion of the Pledge is bound out in the myriad examples of the misunderstandings children have of the words, such as “I pledge allegiance to the flag and the United States of America, and to the republic of Richard Stands…”.

But even above and beyond whether the Pledge recitals are thoughtful and thought-provoking is the issue of turning the Pledge into a test of citizenship. The Founders were against setting up tests of citizenship, such as those in Europe; having to swear loyalty to the monarch and/or the state church was anathema to them. They set up a republic in which citizenship was easy to get—if you’re born in the U.S., or naturalized, you’re a citizen. You don’t have to prove it in any way. Look at the Constitution: there is nothing in it defining citizenship beyond birth and naturalization, and even the naturalization process is not defined. The important thing is how to use your citizenship, not proving it through any kind of statement or oath.

In fact, you have to wait for the Fourteenth Amendment, in 1868, to get a reiteration of the definition of citizenship, and again it is straightforward: “All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction  thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”

Citizenship tests are “laws which abridge the privileges and immunities of citizenship”, and can lead to depriving citizens of life, liberty, and property. Requiring proofs of patriotism to justify one’s citizenship is un-American. Demanding that the Pledge be mandated on the basis that anyone who doesn’t agree is unpatriotic and doesn’t love their country is un-American. It is precisely the fact that Americans are not required to prove their patriotism through statements, oaths, or any act beyond upholding democracy by voting and obeying the Constitution, that makes Americans truly free.

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