On Feb. 17, two bills that would require the daily recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance in public schools in our state cleared the Oklahoma Senate Education Committee. Senate Bills 1143 and 1500 change this from a provision of authorization to one of requirement; however, students may refrain if they desire.
After posting this on my social media, it became painfully apparent that fellow Oklahomans had strong opinions regarding this topic. I realize that the Pledge of Allegiance is a true symbol of patriotism, and for good reason. Have we, however, considered the origins of our pledge and why it was originally introduced into our schooling system?
The Pledge of Allegiance was not a part of our national social fabric until 1892, when Francis J. Bellamy introduced it in a children’s magazine as a part of owner Daniel Sharp Ford’s campaign to boost patriotism in American schoolchildren.
The pledge became wildly popular and quickly spread throughout the country and was adopted by schools, federal and local governments and public institutions.
In 1954, the words “under God” were added to the Pledge of Allegiance. According to Pew Research Center, Congress did this to emphasize the distinctions between the United States and the officially atheistic Soviet Union. This addition caused division among Americans and raised questions regarding possible violations of the prohibition of the establishment of religion under our Constitution’s First Amendment. The pledge was thus transformed from a purely patriotic statement to one that splits individuals on the basis of faith or lack thereof.
The problem with the Oklahoma Senate Education Committee’s decision is this: As Oklahomans, do we expect our schoolchildren to publicly pledge their allegiance to their country to prove their patriotism?
The bills in question allow for children to opt out of reciting the pledge, but will those children become a source of contempt from classmates? In a society in which bullying has become a local and national concern, are we ready to support two bills that could lead to increased bullying based on perceived patriotism?
I posed these questions in a radio interview the same week the bills cleared the committee. I made it explicitly clear that as Oklahoma Muslims, we have absolutely no objection to the Pledge of Allegiance and patriotism to our country is supported through the Muslim divine scripture and prophetic tradition.
It perplexed me, therefore, that the radio show host not only questioned my patriotism and that of other Muslims but he went so far as to suggest that as American Muslims, we should support such legislation in order to prove our patriotism.
Indeed, a true sign of patriotism is to uphold the tenets of the Pledge of Allegiance in ensuring liberty and justice for all and not merely mandating its recital. Upholding our Constitution is the most patriotic thing that we, as Oklahomans of diverse faiths and ethnicities, could possibly do.
Justice Robert Jackson’s words from 1943 still hold true today: “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.”
Soltani is executive director of the Oklahoma Council on American-Islamic Relations.