Sara Niccoli and the Pledge of Allegiance

“A pledge reciter, who recites the words ‘liberty for all’ and yet accuses non-pledge reciters of un-patriotism, is breaking their oath as they speak.”

Niccoli-DThere’s a woman named Sara Niccoli, a farmer and a town supervisor in Montgomery County, who is running for the New York State Senate. The way districts are gerrymandered, the 46th District includes part of Albany County, but not the city of Albany. Otherwise, I would have supported her.

Her religious beliefs came under attack “after an anonymous Facebook page dubbed ‘The REAL Sara Niccoli’ posted” late in June “about the candidate’s [long-standing] decision not to recite” the Pledge of Allegiance.

“‘As we commemorate the birth of our nation and all those who gave so much to ensure its place as the ‘Shining City on a Hill,’ it’s unacceptable that [she refuse] to recite the Pledge… Tell Sara Niccoli to honor America!’

“Niccoli, who follows Quaker beliefs that followers do not take pledges or oaths, said …that she does stand and place her hand over her heart to salute the flag. She said the post, which makes no mention of her faith, underscores a need for Americans to revisit ‘what it means to be a patriot and how to act out our patriotism.'” She is probably alluding to Matthew 5:33-37, the Biblical invective against making oaths.

Sara Niccoli continues: “‘That means when we see attacks on faith, when we see attacks based on race or any kind of intolerance, we need to call it out, whether it’s coming from a politician pandering for votes or it’s coming out in the anonymous world of social media,’ Niccoli said. “What’s going on here…is very much a reflection of what’s going on at the federal level, and people who are sort of sitting on the sidelines disgusted by the hate and intolerance that they see, they need to get up and do something about it.”

Some came to Niccoli’s defense in the comment section of the Facebook post, though many of those were apparently deleted. Naturally, the verbiage became nasty, with profanity, “while one comment offered nothing more than an emoji of a handgun.”

Her friend and my fellow Times Union blogger Walter Ayres wrote a sterling defense in Sara, the Quaker patriot, noting “Quakers are not the only ones whose beliefs are misunderstood. Jehovah’s Witnesses, Seventh-day Adventists, Mennonites, Amish, and others have beliefs that are not always in line with the majority views on serving in the military, taking oaths and/or pledging allegiance…we should respect their right to abstain from these activities as much as we rejoice in our ability to participate in them.”

It occurred to me that her position is not dissimilar to what I’ve been reading in Jesus for President by Shane Claiborne and Chris Haw. The Litany of Resistance from Jesus for President by Shane Claiborne and Chris Haw says, among other things:
One: To the transnational Church that transcends the artificial borders of nations
All: We pledge allegiance

Found in Goodreads, Claiborne notes, “Some folks may be really bummed to find that ‘God bless America’ does not appear in the Bible.” Or as John Pavlovitz put it: “The heart of our Christian story is that God is not in a nation-maker or an empire-builder. God is a soul-lover.”

In this discussion, I’ve discovered a number of folks I know who, in their words, “do not pledge allegiance to a piece of cloth.” I can’t remember who wrote, “A pledge reciter, who recites the words ‘liberty for all’ and yet accuses non-pledge reciters of un-patriotism, is breaking their oath as they speak.” It is a form of Christo-Americanism, a “distorted form of Christianity that blends nationalism, conservative paranoia and Christian rhetoric” that has been especially virulent since 9/11.

I saw that on display at the Franklin Graham rally I protested last month. I was greeted by a couple “God thinks America’s the best” songs by a guy with his guitar.

That was all I had to say on the topic. Well, until San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick refused to stand for the Star-Spangled Banner recently. While I admit that the protest made me initially uncomfortable, I find great comfort in the fact that among his staunchest defenders are veterans and active-duty military.

I’m also surprised, though I shouldn’t have been, that people were unaware of the racist narrative of the third verse of the national anthem. Four years ago, I linked to an article about Francis Scott Key’s pro-slavery defense.

I’ve also complained about the Manifest Destiny-riddled fourth verse. Do you know the song never even mentions the United States or America?

Not surprisingly to me, Jackie Robinson acknowledged in his 1972 autobiography, “I cannot stand and sing the anthem. I cannot salute the flag.” The wise Kareem Abdul-Jabbar notes: Insulting Colin Kaepernick says more about our patriotism than his. I like what Rob Hoffman had to say on the issue.

Finally, I just came across Has the American Dream Been Achieved at the Expense of the American Negro?, a famous 1965 debate between James Baldwin and William F. Buckley, Jr. Baldwin addresses “What are the psychological effects of oppression?”: “It comes as a great shock around the age of 5, 6, or 7 to discover that the flag to which you have pledged allegiance, along with everybody else, has not pledged allegiance to you.” A half-century later, this still resonates for many people in “the land of the free.”

Me and the Pledge of Allegiance

“If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein.”

pledge of allegianceSometimes, you need to tell a story so you can tell another story. This is one of those times.

Back in the fall of 1968 (I believe), I was a sophomore at Binghamton (NY) Central High School. This was, of course, a period of a good deal of strife across the country. The war in Vietnam and the civil rights movement were prominently on my mind in the months after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. in April. I read a lot of King after his death, most notably his speeches in April 1967 opposing the Vietnam war. Also in 1967, Muhammad Ali was stripped of his heavyweight boxing title for his refusal to be drafted into the armed service.

Both Ali and King evoked race in stating their positions. King asserted: “The war was doing far more than devastating the hopes of the poor at home… We were taking the black young men who had been crippled by our society and sending them eight thousand miles away to guarantee liberties in Southeast Asia which they had not found in southwest Georgia and East Harlem.” Ali declared: “My conscience won’t let me go shoot my brother, or some darker people, or some poor hungry people in the mud for big powerful America.”

I don’t recall whether the incident to be described was just before or very shortly after John Carlos and Tommie Smith’s Black Power salute at the 1968 Olympics.

For these and many other reasons that led to mass racial violence in America, the notion of “liberty and justice for all” in America rang hollow for me. Still, it was a circumstance that led me to act on it.

There were standardized tests being given throughout the school. As a result, the morning announcements on the intercom, including the recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance, were suspended for several days. I decided that perhaps if the pledge wasn’t all that vital to them, maybe I need not say it.

One morning, though, my homeroom teacher, Harvey Shriber, decided unilaterally that we ought to do the recitation. “Please rise for the Pledge of Allegiance,” he said. Everyone stood except me. He repeated his request, but I remained seated. Harvey got red-faced but said nothing.

The first period was math. The teacher was Joe Marino, who I learned later had the same birthday as I (March 7). He was a young teacher, in his first year, at least at BCHS. I was unsurprised when a burly man I had never seen before sat in the seat a couple of rows behind me.

After class, he asked me to go to his office. I asked where that was; it was the principal’s office. Ah, this was Joseph Kazlauskas, the new principal.

At lunchtime, I met with Dr. K, as he liked to be referred to. I remember that he asked me if I belonged to any religious organization that would prohibit me from participating in the pledge, such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses. He cited the Supreme Court case West Virginia Board of Education v. Barnette (1943), about which Justice Robert Jackson wrote: “If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein.”

No, my opposition to reciting the Pledge of Allegiance did not come from a religious point of view, certainly not from my specific faith’s position. In any case, I agreed to stand when the pledge was offered, but I didn’t have to say it.

Present tense story to follow, sooner than later.

Remembering Francis Bellamy

“I pledge allegiance to my Flag and the Republic for which it stands, one nation indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”

From the Wikipedia:

The Pledge of Allegiance was written in August 1892 by Francis Bellamy (1855–1931), who was a Baptist minister, a Christian socialist, and the cousin of socialist utopian novelist Edward Bellamy (1850–1898). The original “Pledge of Allegiance” was published in the September 8 issue of the popular children’s magazine The Youth’s Companion as part of the National Public-School Celebration of Columbus Day, a celebration of the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s arrival in the Americas.

Initially, it went like this: “I pledge allegiance to my Flag and the Republic for which it stands, one nation indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”

The Pledge was supposed to be quick and to the point. Bellamy designed it to be recited in 15 seconds. As a socialist, he had initially also considered using the words equality and fraternity but decided against it – knowing that the state superintendents of education on his committee were against equality for women and African Americans…
In 1923, the National Flag Conference called for the words “my Flag” to be changed to “the Flag of the United States”, so that new immigrants would not confuse loyalties between their birth countries and the United States. The words “of America” were added a year later.

This addition does seem to make sense, as it specifies the oath. Unfortunately, as Now I Know notes, Bellamy was also responsible for the Bellamy Salute, which was…

…very similar to the traditional Roman one, which Benito Mussolini and then Adolf Hitler adopted for their own supporters. By the early 1940s, the symbolism of such a salute was not longer one of allegiance to the American flag, but rather to Nazi Germany. On December 22, 1942, the United States Congress adopted the Flag Code, dropping the Bellamy Salute from the Pledge of Allegiance, and replacing it with the instruction that the speaker place his or her right hand over his or her heart.

“I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the Republic for which it stands, one Nation indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”

The “under God” phrase wasn’t added until 1954, well after Bellamy died.

Should a Christian say the Pledge of Allegiance?

Is the Pledge of Allegiance a lie, idolatry or showing respect to the country?

Growing up in the 1960s in the United States, I started to wonder about the validity of saying the Pledge of Allegiance. That “liberty and justice for all” part seemed a bit, let’s just say, farfetched, with discrimination based on race, gender, economic condition, and so on. It was explained to me, though, that it was not a pledge to what is, but rather what the ideal nation could be. Hmm. Well, OK.

Back in 1940, in Minersville School District v. Gobitis, the Supreme Court “ruled that public schools could compel students—in this case, Jehovah’s Witnesses—to salute the American Flag and recite the Pledge of Allegiance despite the students’ religious objections to these practices.” But a mere three years later, in West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette held “that the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution protected students from being forced to do” these things. “It was a significant court victory won by Jehovah’s Witnesses, whose religion forbade them from saluting or pledging to symbols, including symbols of political institutions.”

And that was BEFORE the addition of “under God,” to the pledge in the 1950s, instigated by a sermon by a Presbyterian minister, and easily passed by a Congress in the midst of the Red scare, so that it now reads: “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.”

More recently, I’ve been reading about Christians who do not, or did not, believe in saying the Pledge, and there seemed to be two overriding, and not mutually exclusive, reasons. One was like my early thinking, that it was untrue, and that one ought not to swear to a falsehood. More intriguing, though, is the idea that pledging allegiance to the flag equates to making an oath of loyalty to an earthly kingdom, a form of nationalistic idolatry.

Interestingly, the argument tends not to be a divide among the liberal/progressive church folks and evangelicals. Laurence Vance notes that “the United States is in fact about as far from being ‘under God’ as any country on the planet,” that it “leads the world in the incarceration rate, the total prison population, the divorce rate, car thefts, rapes, total crimes, illegal drug use, legal drug use, and Internet pornography production,” among other sins, reasons for refusing to say the pledge.

Conversely, as the Restored Church of God website points out: “Saluting the flag is merely a way of showing respect, and is not of and by itself an act of worship. God commands us, in Romans 13:1-7, to show honor and respect where they are deserved. We salute the flag not because it represents another god, but because it symbolizes the many blessings—freedom being just one—that the Eternal God has bestowed upon one’s nation.”

What say you? Is the Pledge of Allegiance a lie, idolatry or showing respect to the country? I’m particularly interested in how folks from beyond the US feel about similar pledges if in fact there are any in their countries.

Roger Answers Your Questions, Amy

The earth MUST be the center of the universe, because God made the earth – or something like that. Suggesting otherwise was heresy, the Church said; science is WRONG.

Amy from Sharp Little Pencil – sometimes that instrument is VERY pointed, and my “favorite Apalachin girl who went to Vestal,” writes:

Hope all in your camp are all right, Roger. Three “hundred-year floods” in five years for Binghamton. Gee, Rick Perry, do you understand global warming NOW? It’s not a belief system; it’s not an “either, or,” it’s a fact, Jack.

My sister chides me about global climate change like it’s Darwin vs. Adam and Eve, and this thought just came to me. Part of the “religiosity” (ha ha) of Tea Bag/Fundies is that they truly blur the line between faith and fact, as though if you plug your ears and say “La la la” loud enough, it will go away; and worse, that people who don’t share your “beliefs” are somehow unworthy of citizenship in the US.

Take THAT ball and run with it, Roger!!! I’d love to hear or read your thoughts on this. Thanks, Amy

First off, I think that there are too many people who, through ignorance, some of it willful, I must say, decide that if it snows in the southern United States, or New Zealand, this somehow disproves global warming. One need only look at the two words: GLOBAL, over the whole world; WARMING, the average temperature of the planet is rising. Snow in Atlanta is the weather; the collective volume of hurricanes and tornadoes, droughts, and heavy rains is the climate, and it sure the heck seems to be altered, and not for the better. And I don’t believe that it will flip back, at least not without a radical change in our behavior. Check out the NASA Global Climate Change blog and be depressed.

I’ve read the Bible a few times, at least thrice all the way through, and I am at a loss to figure out just how a largely human-made climate change is a threat to a belief in a loving Saviour. Of course, I feel the same way about evolution or gay marriage re faith, so I’m a heretic to some anyway.

The issue I might compare it to is heliocentrism. The earth MUST be the center of the universe because God made the earth – or something like that, right? Suggesting otherwise was heresy, the Church said; science was WRONG. Most of us, except the flat earthers, know how THAT debate turned out. God can’t love us if we’re on the third rock from a second-class star? Huh?

Oh, and my last point: I’ve said this recently, but I’ll repeat it – the blurring of the line between American patriotism and Christianity I find rather disturbing. OK, very disturbing.

My reading of Jesus is that he spoke truth to power, not one to embrace the position and power of the status quo. There is a fundamental [intentionally used] belief out there that the United States is uniquely and singularly endowed by the Creator with powers and abilities far beyond those of “normal” countries. And I think that is hubris. Though, to be fair, I myself have wanted the United States to BE more that shining light it says it wants to be, which means taking care of our planet, no torture, no extraordinary rendition, more equitable distribution of income, no executions – especially of likely innocent people; talking to you, Rick Perry, as well as the state of Georgia. You will recall that those folks in the Bible who decided to build a tower to heaven were thwarted in their plans. Hubris, plain and simple.

What were your favorite and least favorite moments, growing up in the Binghamton area?

My favorite, I suppose, was meeting Rod Serling, when I kinda/sorta got to introduce him at a high school assembly.

My least favorite? The first that came to mind is when Curtis E. LeMay came to town. I don’t know if it was the time he came to the American Legion in Johnson City (right next to Binghamton, for the non-locals) when he was running as George Wallace’s Vice Presidential candidate on October 23, 1968, or some subsequent visit. There were about 200 demonstrators outside that first Legion event, according to the AP report, equal to the number of Legionnaires inside listening to the general, infamous for his statement about bombing North Vietnam “back to the Stone Age,” a quote he thought had been misconstrued. What bugged me at the event I attended was the vague scent of tear gas, unwarranted given the peaceful (though loud) nature of the protest.

PS I left a reply for you (finally) that asks you to email me regarding your thoughts on the Pledge…)

This is in reference to a comment I made on her blog – that I can’t immediately find – about how annoyed I was that “under God” was inserted into the Pledge of Allegiance, and just in time for me to go to grade school.

I don’t have a problem pledging fealty to country, though that “liberty and justice for all” part has bugged me periodically. And I don’t mind pledging fealty to God. But when they get mixed together, then I have difficulty. The United States is NOT a theocracy; see my comment above. Moreover, the addition of “under God” to the Pledge just seemed a silly overreaction to the Red scare; it wasn’t in the original, composed by Francis Bellamy in 1892, for a good reason, I’m guessing.

The friend who sent me the visual above said, “I’m forward this picture,” entitled One Nation Under God by Jon McNaughton, “which I find blasphemous in so many ways, even though I’m not at all religious…” Well, I AM religious, for lack of a better word, and I find it just as blasphemous. (But to really “appreciate” it more fully, you must see it on his website, complete with narrative.) Sometimes I think the Jehovah’s Witnesses got it right; in the section regarding nationalism:
“Jehovah’s Witnesses are not allowed to salute the flag of any nation, recite the pledge of allegiance, stand for or sing the national anthem, run for public office, vote, or serve in the armed forces.” You know, render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s. And/or separation of church and state. And would I REALLY miss voting, given the system’s brokenness?

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