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Pledging Allegiance to Symbols or Systems?

So we're in an uproar because a federal appeals court has ruled the Pledge of Allegiance unconstitutional as an endorsement of religion, thanks to the words "under God." Predictably, our lawmakers couldn't move quickly enough to denounce the ruling. That bastion of piety, the US Senate, voted 99-0 to proclaim that we are, indeed, "one nation under God." The Senate chaplain went further in his prayer before the vote, saying "We acknowledge the separation of sectarianism and state, but affirm the belief that there is no separation between God and state."

I was at a Girl Scout event with my daughter shortly before this happened. She noticed that I didn't recite the Pledge and asked why. Was it, she asked, because I don't believe in God? (Technically, I consider myself agnostic.) "No," I said. "It's because I don't believe in pledging loyalty to a flag."

In The Demon-Haunted World, Carl Sagan wrote about the Pledge, suggesting (among other ideas) that it be directed at the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. Compare the Oath of Office sworn by incoming presidents...

I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter: So help me God.
...to the Pledge of Allegiance:
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.
I explained this to my daughter. "What's the difference," she asked, "between pledging allegiance to a piece of paper instead of to a piece of cloth?" Good question.

Flags are symbols without inherent meanings. We ascribe meanings to them based on our culture. One presumes a typical Palestinian's view of the US flag would be somewhat different than that of an American citizen's. Even within the United States, we hold wide-ranging views on the nature and purpose of the government and nation symbolized by the flag. If I pledge allegiance to it, I'm pledging allegiance to something that might have very different meanings for other people.

The Constitution, on the other hand, specifies a system of government -- an imperfect system, to be sure, but one that has worked, more or less, for over 200 years. Keep in mind that the first duty of the President of the United States is to "support and defend" it. Why shouldn't that be the first duty of all American citizens?

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