Nothing says ‘divisible’ like ‘under God’

Regardless of personal religious beliefs, students should learn about the importance of religious liberty and why it is threatened when the government endorses any religious view.

As a baseball-loving elementary school student in the early 1950s, two apparently unrelated changes became part of my daily life. The Cincinnati Reds transformed into the Cincinnati Redlegs, and the words “under God” were added to the Pledge of Allegiance. Actually, they were related—to the fear of Communism then prevalent in the United States during the shameful McCarthy era.

Patriotism, at the time, was often displayed through symbolic gestures that distinguished us from the Soviet Union. Both the Cincinnati team and the Soviet Union were “Reds,” and we didn’t want anyone in 1953 to believe participants in our national pastime could be card-carrying members of the Communist Party. It’s a wonder we didn’t remove a color and give two cheers for a new version of “Old Glory” in just white and blue. By 1959 our national chromatic fears had diminished, so the team once again became the Cincinnati Reds, their original name when they joined the National League in 1890.

Besides being red, the Soviet Union was also godless. So in 1954 our politicians added “under God” to the “one nation, indivisible” Pledge of Allegiance, which was originally written in 1892, only two years after the Reds entered the National League. And thus we turned our unifying and inclusive secular pledge into a divisive and exclusive religious pledge that public school students were expected to recite every day.

Here my analogy ends. Professional baseball teams are private, and it’s none of the government’s business what a team calls itself. The Reds changed their name for a silly reason and wisely returned to their traditional name, but that was their choice. They can change their name to the “Under God Reds” if they want, though they would lose a lot of atheist fans. On the other hand, public schools are not private. The government funds public schools and it must not imply to students or their parents that the government favors one religion over another or religion over non-religion.

Recent court cases have argued that the pledge should be declared unconstitutional, and perhaps brought back to the traditional “one nation, indivisible” form. A lower court agreed with attorney Michael Newdow, bringing suit on behalf of his school-aged daughter, that the phrase “under God” in the pledge constitutes an endorsement of religion, and therefore violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. However, the U.S. Supreme Court overruled Newdow on procedural grounds, citing that he did not have custody of his daughter after a divorce and therefore didn’t have the right to bring suit on her behalf.

The latest case is different. On Sept. 4, instead of employing the Establishment Clause, Attorney David Niose argued in the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court that compulsory recitation of the pledge violates the Equal Rights Amendment of the Massachusetts Constitution, and is an issue of discrimination. This court had previously ruled on similar grounds that same-sex couples have the right to marry in Massachusetts.

Dave Niose presented a terrific case against the government’s telling students that the United States is “under God.” (Full disclosure: Dave is a friend and former president of the American Humanist Association, where I serve on its Board of Directors. He is also a very worthy successor to me as president of the Secular Coalition for America.) I think I’m being objective in appreciating Dave’s wonderful legal arguments, but I’m not a lawyer and I don’t play one for the Washington Post.

Niose argued that reciting the pledge in public schools for thirteen years alienates atheist students and their families, and he added that “under God” validates believers as patriots and invalidates atheists as second-class, unpatriotic citizens. (Dana Perino, Fox News pundit and former White House press secretary for George W. Bush, unintentionally buttressed Niose’s case about atheists being seen as second-class citizens when she said if atheists really don’t like the pledge, they don’t have to live here.)

The government cannot tell us we are one nation under God any more than it can tell us we are one nation under no gods. Freedom of religion guarantees our right to worship and believe in one, many, or no gods without government interference. Nothing says “divisible” like “under God.” We are legally one nation under the Constitution, geographically one nation under Canada, and unfortunately one nation under surveillance. But we are not theologically one nation under God.

There’s yet another similarity between 1950s changes in a baseball team’s name and changes in the Pledge of Allegiance: most Americans are unaware of the history behind either. I don’t care about baseball history, but all Americans should know the history of the pledge and of our founding as a secular nation with no mention of gods in our Constitution. This separation of religion and government has helped us weather internal conflicts for centuries.

Regardless of personal religious beliefs, students should learn about the importance of religious liberty and why it is threatened when the government endorses any religious view. But because so many Americans are ignorant of our past, and oppose the teaching of evolution and other scientific or social views that conflict with a literal interpretation of the Bible, we are really becoming one nation under-educated.

Image courtesy of Marshall Astor.

About

Herb Silverman 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.
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