News & Blog

The Pledge of Allegiance Goes to Court

Today marks an important step in the fight for equality and separation of religion and government.

David Niose, immediate past President of the American Humanist Association and attorney for “John and Jane Doe,” begins oral arguments today before the Massachusetts Supreme Court.

John and Jane Doe, who wish to remain anonymous, have three children in the Acton Boxborough Regional School District, one in high school and two in middle school. They see the pledge as a violation of their constitutional right not to have religion forced upon them by our government, and have sued the school district. They lost the first round but this has continued up the ranks and today is the next step.

I want to talk about semantic satiation as it relates to the pledge. Semantic satiation is something you have probably experienced, even if you didn’t know the name of it – it’s when you are so familiar with a word (or string of words), via memorization and repetition, that the symbol of the word – the sound, the feel of it in your mouth as you say it – no longer triggers the recall of the relevant corresponding concept in your mind. In other words, you repeat a word or phrase to the point that it temporarily loses meaning to you, and your brain processes it as organized sounds rather than as language, as words with actual definitions – it starts to sound “funny.” For example, most people do not actually recite the Pledge of Allegiance; they half-sing it. There is a specific timing involved – a meter, a rhythm – and there is definitely a melody. If you are “reciting” the pledge in a group, it probably sounds something like this:

If you were anything like me as a child, you more-or-less zoned out while you recited the pledge, because it was so familiar that it didn’t require any conscious effort. However, if one person in that group were to change up the melody or rhythm, even if s/he didn’t change the words, people would instantly be aware of it. It’s not just a group of people reciting the same text; it’s a chorus line, and the words are lyrics. This is not necessarily a negative thing; just something to note.

The reason this matters is that on account of the repetition, and the fact that we learn the pledge from our parents or in school far before we are old enough to understand the real, “grown-up” definitions of words like “pledge,” “allegiance,” “republic,” “indivisible,” “liberty,” and “justice,” we actually end up not really paying attention to what we’re saying later on, even after we really do know what those words mean. We recite the pledge the way we do because we were taught to do it that way: We memorized the mouth-motions necessary to form the syllables, the melody, and the rhythm, before we were old enough to understand the words themselves. We don’t need to understand the meanings of the words in order to recite the pledge “properly.” It’s comparably to teaching a non-English speaker to say, “I know that I am a sinner, and I accept Jesus as my personal lord and savior, and ask him to forgive my sins. In Jesus’ name, Amen.” That doesn’t make him a Christian any more than someone teaching me to how to pronounce اللهم صلى على محمد makes me a Muslim.

Listen to this recording of students reciting the pledge, taken from a movie made in 1939. The Pledge of Allegiance has been modified several times since it was first written; this is the original wording:

Don’t think about this question; just answer: What caught your attention first here? What threw off your stride as you mentally followed along? Was it the “missing” words themselves – or was it that the melody was off, on account of the missing chunk?

I think that it is a mistake to teach very young children the Pledge of Allegiance, before they are old enough to understand the semantics. They end up memorizing the melody and the pledge is hollow to them their entire childhoods, possibly even into adulthood, even after they have learned the meanings of the words in other contexts. When it’s time to recite the pledge, they become robots, like Turing music boxes, singing the melody they first memorized as tots without internalizing the meanings behind the symbols. In my opinion, people recite the Pledge of Allegiance way too often. This should be something you do once, when you are old enough to understand it – say, 18 – as a rite-of-passage, maybe when you register to vote or something like that. For example, police officers and the President are sworn in only once. Understanding that oath as a one-time, important life event, gives it more weight. By reciting this pledge at the start of every day of public school, the start of every school or senate assembly, every baseball game and drag-car race, etc, it just becomes devoid of meaning: Semantic satiation. I think it’s interesting that in Islam, the 5 daily prayers aren’t compulsory until children reach the age of 10 years. That makes more sense to me than the way Christian parents tend to do it. Just do a YouTube search for “baby praying” to see what I mean.

Let’s look at quick history of the pledge itself.

A minister named Francis Julius Bellamy (1855 – 1931) penned the pledge in 1892. The original wording was the same as the pledge in the latter video above. (Trivia buffs: The kid who sticks out his arm 9 seconds in, Nazi-style, was actually doing it correctly for the time period: Bellamy invented a special salute to accompany his pledge, called the “Bellamy Salute,” and he wrote detailed instructions on how to perform it, stretching out one’s arm toward the flag. Decades later, the Nazis independently adopted a very similar gesture (the Nazi Salute).  In order to avoid confusion, President FDR and the Congress formally amended the Flag Code on December 22, 1942, changing the protocol from stretching out one’s arm to placing one’s hand over his/her heart instead, and that’s been the protocol ever since. There was initially some protest from people about amending the Flag Code like that – some saw the change as a slap in the face to tradition and a cave to foreign pressures – but they got over it.

By the way, there is a famous picture of aviator Charles Lindbergh allegedly doing the Nazi Salute; he was actually doing the Bellamy Salute:

American schoolchildren performing the Bellamy Salute.

Lindbergh is on the right.


In 1923–’24, the words “my flag” were changed to “the flag of the United States of America,” with the idea that immigrants might be confused about whether they were pledging allegiance to their birth-country’s flag, or the American flag. The pledge retained this wording for 30 more years; the words “under God” were not part of the pledge yet at this point.

Several different groups, acting at different times, attempted to get Congress to amend the Flag Code to include the words “under God.” The idea seems to have started in 1948, but it took until 1954 to become law. Part of the reason for the delay is that President Harry “I’m not very much impressed with men who publicly parade their religious beliefs” Truman (’45–’53), who was a Democrat, was not very willing to let that happen (go Truman!). Republican President Dwight D. “[I’m] one of the most deeply religious men I know” Eisenhower, though, took office on January 20, 1953, and was instrumental in making the revised wording official. The story about how “under God” made it in is actually pretty interesting, but I won’t get into it here.

So this brings us to the current wording: “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.”

Because of semantic satiation, even though I know you all are fluent in English, I want to dissect the denotata of these words. We come now to the purpose of this article: It’s important, I think, if we’re going to go to the trouble of reciting something, that we do so with full awareness of its meaning. Sometimes, context or a mental image can be helpful, so I will do my best to provide both for you. With any luck, the next time you decide to pledge your allegiance to the US flag and the US republic (or the next time you hear the pledge, if you elect not to recite it, or if you’re simply not an American), you’ll stop to smell the roses a bit more, so to speak.

Pledge: The word “pledge” originally meant collateral as security for repayment of a loan, from Middle English pleggen (to become surety for). In other words, when you pledge something, you are not simply making a promise, you are putting your money where your mouth is. “Pledge” is a transitive verb: It takes a direct object. You can’t simply pledge; grammatically there must be some noun that you are pledging. In this context, you are pledging your…

Allegiance: This comes from Middle English, too, specifically from liege, a vassal bound to feudal service. It also has a second definition of the lord to whom such a vassal is bound – you could use it either way. Shakespeare used it in this second sense often, as one example, Henry V, Act 1, Scene 2: “Shall we call in the ambassador, my liege?” It’s basically another way of saying “lord.” The weight of the word “liege” doesn’t really translate from Middle English to modern English; there just isn’t a modern equivalent without knowing some context of what exactly a lord’s role was in the feudal system of the High Middle Ages. It’s complicated and I don’t want to get into it here, but the point is that when you pledge allegiance to something, you are swearing an oath far beyond what any toddler could possibly understand. Allegiance means you are swearing your entire life, livelihood, and family name over to your lord, up to and including dying to protect his interests in the event of war. It’s not by any stretch a minor commitment!

(There’s actually something really cool going down in this painting, but I’ll save that story for another time.)

Republic: One of my favorite words. This comes from the Latin RES PVBLICA, which literally means “[this] public thing” in the nominative, but the Romans used it idiomatically to mean essentially what it means in English, and the idea of the “Republic” was as important to Romans as the American Flag is to the rightest of the right-wingers today – it was more-or-less sacred. In a republic, government power resides in a citizenry entitled to vote, and is exercised by elected representatives responsible & accountable to them, who govern according to law, under a head-of-state who is not a monarch, i.e a president or consul. (Side note: Contrast this to la cosa nostra, “this thing of ours,” which is what the Italian mafia calls itself). It’s a mouthful of a definition, but it has very important features. The United States has what I think is a fascinating government structure. It sounds like a great idea on paper – everyone gets a say, and in theory, decisions are made with the best interests of the majority of people at heart; anyone can run for office, and the decision-makers are held accountable for their actions. In reality, because the decision-making process is carried out by committee, it’s extremely slow & inefficient, and decisions end up benefiting the people who have the most money to donate to campaign funds. And although technically any citizen can run for office, there are significant economic & social barriers to entry. For example, according to a 2007 Gallup poll, 55% of Americans would refuse to vote for a presidential candidate nominated by their own party, who was otherwise qualified, if s/he happened to be an atheist. What’s up with that? Anyway, I digress… The point is that when you recite the pledge and get to the word “republic,” think of ancient Rome, think of the senate and the consuls, think of voting and citizenship and the law, because that’s what it really means. When I hear the word “republic,” this is what I picture.

One Nation: This is a solidarity thing. Nationalism can be dangerous; for one thing, it’s inherently divisive. In a world approaching a global economy, it can be a hindrance to identify terribly strongly with one particular country. We have one planet and we are literally all in this together. That’s just my opinion, though: The reason this is in the pledge is that, I imagine, the author wanted to emphasize the same idea represented in our national motto: E PLVRIBVS VNVM (lit. out of many, one). Similarly…

Indivisible: Bellamy was 10 years old when the War Between The States ended. He wrote the pledge 27 years later, but I’m sure that was still very much on his mind. This too is a Latin-based word; it’s the prefix “in” (not) + di(s) (apart) + videre (the verb “to see, to separate”). You might be wondering what the common thread is between “to see” and “to separate” such that the Romans used the same word for both concepts. I wonder that sometimes, myself. This is also the root of the English word, “widow.”

Liberty: This word also has its roots in Latin, from libertas/libertatis (freedom or liberty), the same root as Liberal. Liberty means a lot of things; I’m just going to pull straight from Merriam-Webster’s Third New International Unabridged here: “freedom from usually external restraint or compulsion : the power to do as one pleases,” “exemption from subjection to the will of another claiming ownership or services,” “freedom from arbitrary or despotic control,” “the power of choice.” By the way, if you’ve never read Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, you should think about it. And lastly…

Justice: Another Latin word, justus (upright, equitable) from jusjuris (right, as in the legal kind). Justice means being fair. This was an extremely important concept in ancient Rome, in fact among their pantheon, they worshipped a goddess of justice (Justitiaaka Lady Justice). The Romans “borrowed” her from the Greek goddess Themis. Justitia is usually depicted nowadays in paintings and statues wearing a blindfold and holding a scale and a double-edged sword (although the blindfold was a 15th-century addition). Her iconography is actually a conflation of two earlier Greek goddesses, Tyche (Lady Luck; Fortuna in Latin) and Nemesis (from νέμειν, the Greek verb meaning “to give what is due”).

Obligatory picture of said kittens, left to right: Hickory (12 months), Maddie (8 months)

I’m not big on pledges. I think it’s better to continually evaluate your stance on things. Just because you pledge something doesn’t mean it will always & forever be the more ethical or most prudent move to follow through with what you said. Situations change and circumstances change and it’s not a good idea to have your principles set in stone. For example, when I adopted my kittens from the Humane Society, I signed a statement agreeing to take good care of them, feed them and give them veterinary care, and to keep them happy & healthy & alive to the best of my ability for as long as 15-20 years. But one day, no doubt, they will get old, get sick, and be miserable, and euthanizing them will be the most ethical thing I can do. It’s not something I like to think about particularly, but that’s just the way life is. I don’t have any fantasies about seeing them again in some sort of afterlife – don’t get me wrong, I would love if it they could live forever with me – but I am cognizant of the fact that that’s not going to happen in reality. You have to take things as they come, and evaluate your ethical obligations in light of the present circumstances. Just make sure you remember to include your previous obligations in your calculation.

In a country with separation of religion and government, the phrase “under God” does not belong in our official Pledge. It’s inappropriate as it forces religion on everyone and improperly endorses the idea that God is manifest, linked, or otherwise necessary to being an American and a patriot.

We’ll keep you posted as the topic develops.