The right to blaspheme: For no god and country

(Streeter Lecka — GETTY IMAGES) I could not have had a more patriotic beginning. I was born on Flag Day … Continued


(Streeter Lecka — GETTY IMAGES)

I could not have had a more patriotic beginning. I was born on Flag Day (June 14) in 1942, during World War II, at Liberty Hospital in Philadelphia, birthplace of the nation and the flag purportedly designed by Betsy Ross. My first public speech was at a fourth grade Flag Day ceremony. I had been chosen to read my essay, “What the American Flag Means to Me.” I wrote about looking at the flag when “The Star-Spangled Banner” was sung at major league baseball games, hoping I would one day be a player on that field. I’m pretty sure my essay was picked because I happened to mention Flag Day was my birthday. Or maybe the other essays were even worse.

My views on patriotism in general and Flag Day in particular have changed considerably over the years. The anniversary of my birth has become a day when opportunistic politicians periodically attempt to take away freedoms for which our flag is supposed to stand. On my twelfth birthday, President Eisenhower signed into law the addition of “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance, saying, “From this day forward, the millions of our schoolchildren will daily proclaim in every city and town, every village and rural schoolhouse, the dedication of our nation and our people to the Almighty.”

President Eisenhower made no mention of the Constitution during this 1954 Flag Day ceremony, perhaps because the Constitution, which is dedicated to “We the People,” prohibits religious tests for public office and makes no mention of any almighties. This melding of God and country, turning a secular pledge into a religious one, only resulted in my feeling less patriotic when I no longer believed we were under any gods.

The Pledge is not simply a passive reference to religion. It calls on every child in public school to affirm that our country believes in God. No child should go to school each day and have the class declare that her religious beliefs are wrong in an exercise that portrays her family as less patriotic than God-believers.

We once had a fine pledge written in 1892, slightly modified in 1923, and recited without controversy for decades. So why in 1954 were the words “under God” added? Almost certainly because it was the time of the shameful McCarthy era, when pandering or fearful politicians wanted to distinguish themselves from the atheistic Communism of the Soviet Union by creating a holy Cold War. Of course, a government that feels entitled to tell its citizens that they are one nation under God can also feel entitled to tell its citizens that they are one nation under no gods, as the Soviet Union did. Clearly, our secular government began, and must remain, neutral about religion.

I had a pretty good Flag Day birthday this year. Congressman Jared Polis (D-CO) introduced a proposal to allow nonreligious chaplains to serve nonreligious military members, who include nearly a quarter of those serving. Though the bill was defeated by a vote of 274-150, I am encouraged that it was introduced and received 150 votes. Maybe it will pass on my next birthday.

As a relative newcomer to Facebook, the number of birthday greetings I received this year from “friends” astonished me. Many knowledgeable friends also associated my birthday with the Pledge change, which led to discussions that inspired this article.

Flag Day is considered a day to express patriotism, though “patriotism” means different things to different people. I don’t think patriotism means waving flags or asserting that we live in the greatest country on earth, and patriotism is certainly not about claims that a deity favors our country. Patriotism for me includes being able to criticize public policies that need change, and looking for ways to correct or enhance them. I’m pleased to live in a country where we are free to say and do unpopular things. I agree with the landmark 5-4 Supreme Court decision that the First Amendment allows flag burning as a protected form of political expression. Some people believe burning the American flag is a form of blasphemy, because it takes a symbol revered as sacred and desecrates it. That’s exactly why such acts should be protected, just as blasphemy is protected speech in a free country.

I ended my birthday this year not by burning an American flag or by blaspheming, but by watching a patriotic 1939 cartoon starring none other than Porky Pig. The cartoon shows him saluting the American flag while reciting the original “one nation, indivisible” version of the Pledge of Allegiance.

I consider it my patriotic duty to advocate for and support others who are working to restore the original pledge. I think in a country that takes pride in recognizing freedom of conscience for all people, nothing says “divisible” like “under God.”

Herb Silverman is founder and President Emeritus of the Secular Coalition for America, author of “Candidate Without a Prayer: An Autobiography of a Jewish Atheist in the Bible Belt,” and Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Mathematics at the College of Charleston.

Herb Silverman
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  • Deric1

    With the ascendence of the ‘Christian’ Right in the nation, the chances of taking ‘under God’ out of the Pledge are slim.

    But you know? We can handle it. The Pledge is mostly a crutch for the simple-minded, so corrupting it really makes little difference.

  • Openletter2004

    “GOD” can be taken out of the pledge and off the money,, BUT it will require a very deep pocketed INDIVIDUAL willing to take the issue to the Supreame Court.

    The reason it MUST be an INDIVIDUAL is because the reight to the “free excercise thereof” is an INDIVIDUAL RIGHT. Jefferson made it clear that withing that INDIVIDUAL right was the INDIVIDUAL RIGHT to NOT believe in “GOD”.

    They [the clergy] believe that any portion of power confided to me, will be exerted in opposition to their schemes. And they believe rightly; for I have sworn upon the altar of god, eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man. But this is all they have to fear from me: and enough, too, in their opinion.
    -Thomas Jefferson to Dr. Benjamin Rush, Sept. 23, 1800

    Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between man and his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legislative powers of government reach actions only, and not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should ‘make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,’ thus building a wall of separation between church and State.
    -Thomas Jefferson, letter to Danbury Baptist Association, CT., Jan. 1, 1802

    History, I believe, furnishes no example of a priest-ridden people maintaining a free civil government. This marks the lowest grade of ignorance of which their civil as well as religious leaders will always avail themselves for their own purposes.
    -Thomas Jefferson to Alexander von Humboldt, Dec. 6, 1813.

    In every country and in every age, the priest has been hostile to liberty. He is always in alliance with the despot, abetting his abuses in return for protection to his own.
    -Thomas Jefferson, letter to Horatio G. Spafford, March 17, 1814

  • Khartet

    always a shame when the post uses the little space it devotes to faith matters for those with no faith.

  • leibowde84

    So, Khartet, sounds like you think people “with faith” are more important than those without (or somehow better or more enlightened). Pretty darn egotistical, buddy. Faith is fine … but when it makes people see themselves as being above those without it, it becomes an absolute evil. Faith is personal … anything beyond that is merely speculation.

  • I-270Exit1

    I’m an atheist. When necessary to recite the Pledge of Allegiance, I recite the pre-1954 version. Belief in a supernatural being(s) ought not to play a role in one’s loyalty to one’s country.

  • jonesm2

    Herb, Love the last line of your article. Can I make that into a bumper sticker? Oh wait, I don’t have a car. Anyhow, sorry that I missed your birthday. Forgive me. I was in China. Happy late birthday.

  • PhillyJimi1

    What is a shame is, how the faithful somehow fail to realize is how they are completely protected under the first amendment. But they fail to realize is when ever a politician tries to inject the religion of the majority into matters of the state everyone loses their freedom.

    When god is removed from the pledge it is a great thing for the protection of every American to worship or not to worship in their own private way however they see fit. Injecting religion into the political process only creates problems.

  • roedyg

    The notion of blasphemy means there are certain protected groups or beliefs which are beyond criticism and those groups get to decide for themselves what is sufficiently respectful to count as not criticism.

    I think the notion is absurd. The very groups demanding exaggerated respect are those most deserving of a good horse laugh. Mostly this applies to the religious (including flag worshipers), but you can also get people behaving that way about economic theories.

  • Dave Brown 709

    Yes, of course! Who among us can argue with Herb’s well reasoned and well articulated comments.

    Since 1954, whenever I participated in reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, even when I served in local public office, when the recitation advanced to the point of “under God,” I merely refrained from reciting those words. Don’t think anybody noticed, but as a secular humanist, I felt better about it.

  • veginpost

    Anyone who ask the religious preference of a political candidate is committing defamation of character. It doesn’t matter how the victim answers the question it becomes a mark on their character. Asking a political candidate about his/her religious preferences is to me unethical. Those should be private matters. A person declaring the same is committing nothing more than the lowest form of pandering. We have stooped as a people to allowing employers and even our supposedly secular military to ask about an applicants religion. Yet we still blab about being a free and progressive tolerant nation. Hogwash.

  • h5r2

    This is about On Faith, not just Pro Faith. If there were a section on Nazis, would you allow only positive comments about Nazis? A well reasoned argument like this one about why under God should not be in the pledge can even be supported by rationalist religious people.

  • gladerunner

    Very well said Herb!
    But what about the broader notion of ‘pledging allegiance’ to the flag? What’s up with that? The whole idea of lining up our children to recite a statist-style loyalty oath to a tri-color cloth is a bit troubling to me.
    If taken literally we are pledging an oath to a piece of cloth AND to the Republic, both things, not the one as a symbol for the latter.
    I find the whole thing rather bothersome.

  • edwills

    The original pledge from 1982, written by a Baptist socialist minister, was not statist. It was about an indivisible nation, mentioning no country.

  • MHughes976

    I don’t see anything here about the right to blaspheme, ie express hostility to religion or a religion in a way considered to be offensive. Being able to declare that one is committed to the welfare of one’s country and to obedience to its laws (which is what I think loyalty generally amounts to) without invoking a deity hardly amounts to blasphemy, does it?

  • h5r2

    “Clearly, our secular government began, and must remain, neutral about religion.”

    This says that the government must remain neutral about religion, not individuals. You are free to believe or not believe any religion without government interference.

  • ThomasBaum

    mhausam

    You wrote, “For example, my religious beliefs teach that all nations should be Christian and base laws on the moral law of God.”

    Your “religious beliefs” might teach you that but it sure is not what Jesus taught.

    God did NOT become One of us for us to set up a theocracy in His Name and Jesus, in His lifetime, never forced Himself on anyone.

    The way that you or anyone else follows or doesn’t follow Jesus should come from within, not imposed from the outside.

  • mhausam

    “This says that the government must remain neutral about religion, not individuals.”

    But secularism isn’t neutral about religion, for it adopts a position that disagrees with my religious beliefs. Perhaps you mean simply that a secular government will be tolerant towards me as a Christian–i.e., not put me in jail, etc. That may be true, but the position itself still is not neutral because it disagrees with my beliefs.

    Whether my beliefs match up with what Jesus actually taught is a matter I won’t get into right now. I’ll just stick to my original point and claim.

  • h5r2

    Neutrality means that government neither favors nor disfavors any religion. If you are upset with that, then you should live in a theocracy.

  • ThomasBaum

    Secular, as people refer to the state (USA), means to me that no one can force their beliefs and/or non-beliefs on me and I, in turn, can not force my beliefs and/or nonbeliefs on others.

    I, personally, believe that the founding fathers were Divinely inspired in what is referred to as the separation of Church and state.

    Whenever and wherever Church and state are joined together, it is detrimental to both and to everyone.

    Actually, Church, religion or whatever one wants to call it should come from within and the state is something that is imposed from the outside.

  • mhausam

    But a secular government disfavors religions. For example, it disfavors my religion by making laws that assume and imply that some of my religious beliefs are false. This is not neutrality. Whether I am upset about it or not is irrelevant; the point is that the claim that secularism is neutral is simply false.

    “Secular, as people refer to the state (USA), means to me that no one can force their beliefs and/or non-beliefs on me and I, in turn, can not force my beliefs and/or nonbeliefs on others. ”

    All laws force beliefs on others. Laws reflect values, and values reflect beliefs. For example, a law against murder presupposing the belief that life is valuable and should be protected by the state. If someone believes otherwise, he has contrary beliefs forced upon him.

    Again, the claim that secularism is neutral is fallacious, for it enshrines in law certain values and beliefs not held by all.

  • ThomasBaum

    mhausam

    You wrote, “For example, a law against murder presupposing the belief that life is valuable and should be protected by the state.”

    Why would you think that a law against murder presupposes that “life is valuable”?

    You also wrote, “All laws force beliefs on others.”

    Seems to me that many, if not most, laws are for the simple reason that many want to tell others how to live their lives rather than attempting to live their own lives.

  • mhausam

    “Why would you think that a law against murder presupposes that “life is valuable”? ”

    You don’t think it does? Why do we have laws against murder?

    All of us think some laws are more reasonable than others; but, whether reasonable or not, all laws seek to control citizens in light of certain values and beliefs and in that sense seek to impose those beliefs and values on them.

  • jayc1

    We have laws against murder because we don’t want to be murdered or have anyone we care about be murdered. Murders tend to disrupt society, and so we make laws to protect society. It doesn’t really have anything to do with right or wrong, just with how we want our society to be ordered. I happen to think murder is wrong, but that does not matter as far as law goes.

  • skypilot177

    Mr. Silverman, if patriotism for you means a crusade to remove “Under God” from the Pledge of Allegiance, all I can say is, get a life. If you have nothing better to do with your time, then that’s pretty pathetic.

  • Rongoklunk

    I’m surprised that people still feel it’s great to have faith. 9/11 showed how stupid and dangerous faith really is.
    Those nineteen college educated young holymen had such strong faith that they gave their lives up for it.
    The thing is – we all know they are dead. But that is not what they expected. They expected to go straight to heaven. They had Faith. And now they are dead. Faith always ends in death. Because commonsense and science too, tells us that all living things die; that the afterlife is a scam, and this ‘right now’ – is the only life there is for us. The rest is fantasy.

  • Rongoklunk

    Mr Silverman knows as well as anybody else that religion is the problem right now in the world, especially in the middle east, and it was religion that took down the WTC on 9/11. That told us loud and clear that Faith is the biggest problem we have on the planet; Faith in Gods who don’t exist.

  • RafaelR

    Your comment is ironically recursive, no?

  • RafaelR

    mhausam

    “But a secular government disfavors religions. For example, it disfavors my religion by making laws that assume and imply that some of my religious beliefs are false. This is not neutrality.”

    Your posts reflect a profound misunderstanding or naivete about the purpose of a government, which is to represent all of the people who live in particular area under its jurisdiction, not the views of a particular group in that area. Secularism means that any particular religious group is not favored, which necessarily implies conflict with the beliefs of *all* of those groups where they differ. As long as you are not disfavored relative to how much others are disfavored, then government is serving its proper role, and is neutral, even if any particular group feels disfavored.

  • nondescript

    The fact is, that little phrase ironically injected between “One nation” and “Indivisible” has been very divisive. It is a large problem. If you think otherwise, try suggesting to any Christian that it should be removed out of fairness to the rest of society here.
    I am patriotic. I do believe this is a great country. That means that I work to correct any faults I see with this country. Sure, it is a smaller problem than some others, but words do have consequences. The inclusion of “Under God” in the Pledge and “In God We Trust” on our currency was a big step in making this country a theocracy. In their inception, they have been used repeatedly to beat down the wall between church and state. This is a dangerous trend, as other theocracies have demonstrated.

  • edwills

    Nothing says “divisible” like “under God.” I love it!!

  • leibowde84

    Great comment. Very topical. Love it!

  • gladerunner

    Regardless edwills, It doesn’t matter which Republic the oath is referring to, this is still a loyalty oath to that particular nation.
    Bellamy’s original, from 1892 is as follows:
    “I pledge allegiance to my Flag and the Republic for which it stands, one nation indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”
    ‘My flag’, meaning the one you are currently looking at, the flag of your own nation, one would assume. I don’t think it leaves room for doubt which one we are talking about. It is a pledge of loyalty- fidelity – faithfulness – adherence – devotion (synonyms)
    I’m as proud of my country as much as anyone, but should my country (government) go down a path that is counter to the rights of individuals as guarantied by our constitution, then I am free/obligated to protest those actions, not just blindly follow it into an abyss of infringement of individual rights. Thus my loyalty, adherence, fidelity is to the tenets of the constitution, not to a symbol of, or the Republic itself.
    The same as parenting. I love my kids, am loyal to them and will fight for them, but only to the point that they themselves obey the laws of the land. Should they start manufacturing or marketing illegal substances, or engaging in human trafficking, theft, violence, etc. it is my duty, not to stand up for them and fight for them, but to correct them, to try to stop them from doing wrong. My allegiance to my own children is conditional.
    Thus any allegiance I would ever swear an oath to would be conditional as well. Bellamy’s pledge appears absolute.
    When I enlisted many, many years ago I swore to uphold and protect the constitution, not the flag, from ALL enemies, foreign or domestic. That I can do.

  • drmwlau

    They want the pledge of allegiance to be unconstitutional. They want the currency to be unconstitutional. They want Christmas as a federal holiday to be unconstitutional. They want the Lincoln Memorial to be unconstitutional. They want inaugural traditions to be unconstitutional. They want Article VII (“Year of our Lord”) of the Constitution to be unconstitutional. They want historic war memorials to be unconstitutional. They want all public events and spaces to be pristine from an atheist point of view. The difference between what they want and official atheism is microscopic.