This being Memorial Day weekend, it seems like a good time to blog about a speech I’m preparing for Toastmasters. I’m interested in your opinions, which may give me helpful material for my speech.
When I first joined Toastmasters, I was surprised when the president of the club set up a small American flag and led us in the Pledge of Allegiance. What did that have to do with public speaking, I wondered? But I got used to it.
When our club re-formed, a couple of years later, after having been inactive for a few months due to lack of participation, the new president did not lead us in the Pledge of Allegiance. I was surprised. Wasn’t saying the Pledge part of a Toastmasters meeting? But I got used to it.
When I participated in the Toastmasters area contest in March, we began with the Pledge of Allegiance. When I visited another local club, we started with the Pledge. So when I became president of our club last month, one of the first things I did was find out who or what determined whether to include the Pledge at the start of meetings.
I found out that it is decided by majority vote of active members in the club. So I plan to suggest we vote on it at an upcoming meeting. But first I want to do my next speech on the Pledge of Allegiance, so we’ll be adequately prepared to vote knowledgeably on the subject. (I picked June 8 for the day to give my speech, it being the meeting day closest to Flag Day on June 14.)
Considering that today we tend to associate the Pledge of Allegiance with conservative politics, I was surprised to learn that it was written by a Socialist. Francis Bellamy (cousin of Edward Bellamy who wrote Looking Backward) was a Baptist minister who preached Christian Socialism. He advocated a variety of social reforms, including many that we take for granted today – municipal ownership of water, free public schools, women’s suffrage, the 8-hour day, safety laws, and the end of child labor.
Bellamy saw the public schools not only as a way to improve the lives of most people, but also as a way to influence the next generation to the Christian socialist way of thinking. He believed that state-controlled education and a state-controlled economy would lead to the utopia described in his cousin’s novel. Providing public schools with American flags and teaching schoolchildren to pledge their allegiance to that flag would promote devotion to the state and help lead to the desired nationalization of the economy.
Whatever Americans may have thought of Bellamy’s politics, they responded positively to the idea of having their children recite a pledge to the flag. Within thirty years, several states had passed laws requiring schoolchildren to recite the Pledge of Allegiance. In part, this was seen as a way to help immigrants come to think of themselves as Americans. The original wording of the pledge said “I pledge allegiance to my flag,” but as there were concerns that immigrants might think it referred to the flag of their former homeland, it was changed to “the flag of the United States” and later to its current wording “the flag of the United States of America.”
Not everyone thought the pledge was a good thing, however. Jehovah’s Witnesses believe that pledging allegiance to a flag is a form of idolatry, bowing down to a thing made by men. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1943 that children could not be required to say the pledge, and states that make it a mandatory exercise at school have to allow children to opt out.
Some people see the pledge as promoting statism – concentrating control in the government at the cost of individual liberty. Others worry that it promotes an unhealthy attitude of nationalism (seeing ourselves as superior to people of other countries) rather than a healthy sense of patriotism (gratitude for what is good about our country and willingness to work to improve it).
Some people object to schoolchildren reciting the pledge on the grounds that most of them do not understand what they are saying. What purpose is there, they ask, in requiring such a recitation other than to inculcate in the children a sense of blind loyalty? Some adults object to saying the pledge because pledge advocates accuse those who do not recite it of lacking patriotism. If people feel pressured into saying it, then it becomes a tool of coercion rather than a tribute to liberty.
And that’s without even taking into consideration the whole matter of those two words “under God” that were added in 1954. Some atheists and agnostics object to saying the pledge because it amounts to lying to say that the country is “under God.” Others consider it a form of prayer, and to require anyone to say a prayer, even such a generic one, violates their right to religious freedom. Some Christians object because it is such a generic reference to God, and suggests that the is one deity worshipped by all regardless of their specific religious beliefs.
After reading all these arguments, I found myself wondering, do I even want to suggest to my fellow Toastmasters that we consider adding the Pledge of Allegiance to our meeting agenda? But of course there are arguments on the positive side as well.
For many, perhaps most Americans, there is no need to analyze the history of the pledge or the possibility that patriotism can be twisted into something perverse. The American flag represents our country and the freedom that draws so many people to seek U.S. citizenship. Saying the pledge is a way of honoring the country, and honoring the brave men and women who died to make and keep us free. It is a promise to be faithful to the ideals that it stands for, recognizing that we fall short but determining to work to make the country better.
If there were no Pledge of Allegiance, and no history of reciting it, I doubt that many people would argue for creating one. But given that we do have the Pledge, and over one hundred years history of reciting it, to choose not to say it does not come across as a neutral choice. (Likewise, if the words “under God” were not now part of the pledge, there might be no push to add them. But to take them away sends a certain message that is generally interpreted as anti-God.)
The Pledge of Allegiance has meant different things to a lot of people, from a tool to promote socialism to an idolatrous oath to a statement of love for country. It has been used by politicians to paint their opponents as unpatriotic, and by protesters as a way to make a statement about the country. If we say it, our motives may possibly be misunderstood by some people, and if we do not say it, our motives will almost certainly be misunderstood by others.
So which approach has the greater opportunity to express what we do want to express, a gratitude for the freedom that we have, freedom that lets us choose whether or not to say it? If you were a member of the Toastmasters club and asked to vote on it, what would you choose?