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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.