Okay, this is a bit of an old story, but I’ve been wanting to comment on it for a while – in late January, Rocky Mountain High School in Fort Collins, Colorado continued the project of their Cultural Arms Club to recite the Pledge of Allegiance in different languages. So a bunch of high school students recited the Pledge in a language other than English. Not really news-worthy, right?
Except that they recited it in Arabic, and then Todd Starns over at Fox News Radio flipped his sh*t, to use the technical term. Because reciting the Pledge in Arabic means that all of those students just swore allegiance to “one nation under Allah.”
Actually, hopefully, they didn’t, because that phrase implies that they translated half the sentence, but not the other half. They probably said something like “aa-ma tahta allah” (or “aa-ma wahida tahta allah,” if they felt the need to stress the singularity of America), which means they said “one nation under God,” because those two phrases are direct translations of one another.
I think the uproar around this issue has two parts. One is our continued sanctification of the Pledge, the other is the question of are all Gods equal.
As for the first, let me state at the outset that I really don’t understand our obsession with the Pledge, and I don’t understand why we still make children say it. To be fair, if the Pledge is meant as a pledge, that is, a spoken oath of allegiance or action, then we should never let children say it in foreign languages, because you can’t swear to an oath you don’t understand. At the same time, if it’s an oath, we should never make children take it, for the same reason we don’t like them get married or vote – minors don’t have the intellectual maturity to understand oaths.
For people who don’t know, the Pledge dates from 1892, it original had children swear allegiance to “my flag” (so presumably it wasn’t treason for children to plot against the government in the 1890s, so long as they had their own flag), and the words “under God” were added in the 1950s. The addition of “under God,” as well as our current obsession with the Pledge, owes a lot to the Red Scare, the belief that commies had infiltrated all aspects of government, entertainment and media by assuming false identities and lying to everyone around them, but that they could be found out by forcing them to swear allegiance to the US under God. They were also made to pinky swear their allegiance.
As it turns out, it didn’t work – loads of people who worked in government and media in the 50s and 60s have since been discovered to be either communists or USSR spies, and almost all of those people signed loyalty oaths and said the Pledge, because it turns out if you’re willing to lie to everyone around you, you’re willing to lie to everyone around you. The people who refused to sign were mostly independently-minded intellectual types who didn’t like the idea of everyone swearing allegiance to the flag. So basically, if we need a way to play “spot the indie kid” in schools, the Pledge works well. For everything else, not so much.
The second half of this problem, of whether all Gods are equal, is unfortunately much more complex. But the short answer would be something like this: to you, no, under the law and in public discourse, yes.
As with “what is a religion,” this system is imperfect because there are times that we want the government to define what is and isn’t a religion, and by extension, what is and isn’t a God. The IRS has declared that the Church of Scientology can’t claim itself as a religion on its taxes, but does that means that individual Scientologists shouldn’t have protection under the First Amendment to express and practice their beliefs? In general, as a scholar of religion, I tend to ere on the side of cooperation for defining religions – if you tell me you’re a religion, I’m inclined to believe you. I won’t necessarily let you take a deduction of your taxes, but I will do my best to give you free space to practice your faith.
There’s also the problem that I’ve discussed before with Islamophobia of needing to separate out “Arabic” and “Muslim.” There are a lot of things that fall into both of those categories, but those terms are not interchangeable. Not all Muslims speak Arabic, and not all Arabic-speakers are Muslim. By the same measure, “Allah” is not a term that applies exclusively to the Muslim conception of the divine. Quite the opposite, in fact – Arabic-speaking Christians use “Allah” for God, as well, in order to refer to the God of the Christian Bible.
Which gets back to the issue of is the Pledge of Allegiance an oath. Because if it is, then people should swear on their own God, on whatever concept of divinity means the most to them, because it’s supposed to be the sacredness of that relationship between worshiper and worshiped that makes the oath real. But if that’s the case, then we definitely shouldn’t make people we don’t trust to vote, marry, gamble, or defend our country take it.
 Obviously some do, but in terms of laws, we work on averages, and on average, children don’t take oaths to the state any more seriously than they do their oath to clean their room today.