“Under God” Is Not All that Needs to Change About the Pledge

The dubious phrase does have something going for it — namely, controversy that could lead to conversation.

Here’s a confession from an atheist: I would not want school children to recite the Pledge of Allegiance daily if the words “under God” were removed. Why? Because those two controversial words at least motivate some people to examine the Pledge and reflect on what it represents.

My atheist friends should not be too alarmed, though, because I would like “under God” removed from the Pledge.

I recited the godless version until my twelfth birthday, June 14, 1954. On that Flag Day, President Eisenhower signed into law the addition of “under God,” turning a secular pledge into a religious one. These words were inserted at the height of the McCarthy era to distinguish us Americans from those godless Communists.

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals found that the phrase “under God” constituted an endorsement of religion, and therefore violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. However, this Newdow v. United States case was overruled on another Flag Day, June 14, 2004, when the Supreme Court determined that Newdow was a non-custodial parent and therefore lacked “prudential standing” to bring the case on his daughter’s behalf. (Michael Newdow was the featured speaker for the twentieth anniversary celebration of our local secular humanist group this month.)

The “under God” addition didn’t mean much to me when I was 12. Like most students, I mindlessly recited the Pledge without thinking about its meanings. At the end of the public school day, I usually attended Hebrew school where I mindlessly recited prayers. The altered Pledge of Allegiance just made it seem more like my Hebrew prayers.

Fortunately, not everything in public and Hebrew school was done by rote. A few good teachers in each inspired me to think about concepts and ask questions — a welcome transition from indoctrination to education.

Our public schools train students to say the Pledge of Allegiance whether they understand it or not, because simply regurgitating the Pledge daily is supposed to make them more patriotic. That strategy succeeds if patriotism means just following orders of those in power. Adding  “under God” then equates patriotism with God belief, and implies that atheists can’t be patriotic.

The American Humanist Association recommends that students and adults sit down for the Pledge until the Pledge is restored to its formerly inclusive version. I admire people, religious or not, who are willing to stand (or sit) in opposition to the majority because they want to keep religion and government separate and are concerned about religious indoctrination of children. To me, that courageous act is patriotic.

Here’s how I would like to see public school teachers turn the Pledge of Allegiance into a meaningful patriotic exercise. First, assign each student to write a short essay on one of 10 segments in the Pledge. For example:

1. I pledge allegiance (What does it mean to pledge, and what is allegiance?)

2. To the flag (Why to a flag? Should it be to someone or something else?)

3. Of the United States of America (How united are we, and what is America?)

4. And to the republic for which it stands (What’s a republic, and why are we one?)

5. One nation (In what sense are we one nation?)

6. Under God (Are we all under God, under the same God, and the only such nation?)

7. Indivisible (How are we indivisible, and what might divide us?)

8. With liberty (What does it mean to have liberty?)

9. And justice (Do we all have equal access to it, and does it ever conflict with liberty?)

10. For all (Does that mean all people or only American citizens?)

Next, have students read their essays, followed by class discussions. Then encourage each student to rewrite the Pledge in a way that is more meaningful to him or her. Instead of group recitation, the class can listen to and discuss each different pledge.

The “under God” discussions would undoubtedly be the most heated, because our “indivisible” nation is divided about God. Some students might choose to eliminate “under God,” while others might change it to “under Jesus,” “under Allah,” “under the Constitution,” or even “under Canada.” Perhaps enlightened teachers will advocate a return to the pre-1954 Pledge just to bring more unity to the classroom.

Many who engage in this exercise might conclude that the government should not tell us we are one nation under God any more than it should tell us we are one nation under no gods. Regardless of personal religious beliefs, students ought to learn about the importance of religious liberty and why it is threatened when the government endorses any religious view.

Teachers could parse the Pledge in other ways or ask different questions. But one thing for sure is that their students would learn and understand the Pledge of Allegiance better than previous generations have, whether “under God” or not.

Although we tend to deify our founders and hold them up as role models, we act more like them when we question the old order and try to improve it. Our founders wrote the world’s first secular Constitution, and they also established a method for future generations to amend it when needed.

Thinking, questioning, and trying to improve our country is definitely patriotic — a lot more so than merely reciting pledges and prayers or waving flags.

Image courtesy of Cherry Point.

Herb Silverman
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  • supup

    As a psychologist and educator, I love your idea, Herb. Mindless recitation of any text is meaningless. And, you’re right, religious liberty IS threatened anytime the state endorses religion. Christians are in the majority now in the US, but look no further than persecuted Christians in Iran (or the history of Christianity) to see what happens when one religious group “owns” the government.

  • RichardSRussell

    Let’s run the numbers, shall we? 180 days in the school year times 13 years in school means that kids will be exposed to the Pledge of Allegiance 2,340 times during their formative years. Who can honestly contend that Repetition #2001 is any more meaningful or illuminating than Repetition #2000? And yet you’ve still got over 300 left to go.

    Even at only half a minute per recitation, that’s nearly 20 hours over a student’s school career shot in not learning anything. Are the schools really doing so well that we can afford to waste their time like that?

    This insistence on repeated mindless conformity is teaching them something, tho: submission to authority, even when it makes no sense at all.

    • Hifi1

      3) conformity

  • http://www.twitter.com/MaggieArdiente Maggie Ardiente

    This would be a great exercise. I question why students are asked to memorize anything before understanding what it means. That’s not how we should be learning.

  • Ed Buckner

    Herb, as usual, writes with good effect to stirring thought–and, in this case, including a good lesson plan for encouraging teachers to encourage critical thinking among their students. Not original with me (don’t remember where i heard it), but to “under Canada” as a possible sarcastic phrase for the pledge, we could add, “under-educated.” And to the “indivisible” bit we might ask, pointedly, what was the point of changing a phrase such as “one nation, indivisible” by dividing it with the phrase–and the idea–“under God.” And, as Dr. S. implies, it’s worth discussing whether we or students gain by having rote pledges of any kind.

  • Rob Britt

    anything that is recited on a daily basis, by rote or not, is part of brainwashing. Probably not a popular point of view, but even patriotism itself is a form of conditioning. (before anyone shouts me down, I love this country and served honorably in the military for 14 years.)

  • James J Lundy Jr

    Throughout my childhood I thought the word was “liverty” and every time I said it I had a vivid picture of the least favorite of all meals my mother made when I said it: liver and onions. To this day, I associate the Pledge more with liver than I do with the United States.

  • Aljo_C

    As an Englishman I have always found that forcing children to take an oath of allegiance as rather creepy, the kind of indoctrination that I would only expect to see in somewhere like North Korea. And every day? Isn’t an oath valid indefinitely?

    • Hifi1

      I say have the kiddies sign the Pledge in blood on the first day of kindergarten. If they are ever suspected of treasonous activity, pull it out to use against them.

      BTW, think about the slippery slope that is the weekend and the avalanche of traitorous thought that is the summer vacation sans pledging!

  • Amy

    I think it is anti-American to indoctrinate kids to pledge an oath of allegiance to a country that was built on freedom of conscience.

  • anamericanundernogods

    I am an American and I pledge to the U.S.A. and its Flag.

    Why should I pledge to God and admit “One Nation, Under God?”

    How about my Muslim friend?

    Should he pledge to Allah and admit “One Nation, Under
    Allah?”

    Note that their Allah is neither the Christian God nor the
    Jewish God.

    How about my Hindu colleague?

    I emphasize that:

    We all are Americans, Under One Flag.

  • Will Moredock

    Ironic, indeed, that the pledge of Allegiance, with its claim of an indivisible nation, would be injected with the phrase “under God,” thus insuring and inspiring division among Americans.

  • Shripathi Kamath

    Simply excellent!

  • cecil

    So often Herb Silverman says what I think, but he says it better than I think.
    Other responses have said it all. I simply add my personal “Amen”.

  • Ted Foureagles

    Thanks once again Herb. I’m almost a decade younger than you, and my initial encounter of the Pledge of Allegiance was on the first day of the first grade. When the teacher told us to stand to recite it first thing in the morning, I eagerly jumped up, excited to finally be doing a real school activity! Then I thought, wait a minute; a pledge is a solemn promise — Mom taught me that, and I don’t even know what allegiance means. How could I promise something that I didn’t yet know the meaning of? And I so reluctantly sat back down and listened. It went about as you would expect with first graders …one nation, invisible… When it was over, our teacher sat down and started writing. Then she called me to her desk with a note that I was to take to the principal. He gave me a stern dressing down on patriotism and obedience. I don’t remember much of it, but it was filled with things about WWII and Communism and God. Then he wrote a note for me to take home to my parents, and sent me back to class much humiliated.
    I didn’t know what to expect from my Father when I handed him the note, but I didn’t expect it to be good. After all, Dad had served under Patton, and had expressed admiration for “that rotten son of a bitch”. I was shaking in my little boots when he opened and silently read the note and then picked up the phone. After interminable minutes of yes and no and why nots, and other indecipherable chatter, I was astonished to head Dad say, “Well I’m damn proud of the boy.” I think he said some other stuff about possible consequences of doing that to me again, but I hardly heard the rest of the conversation. All he said to me afterward was, “You’ll get yourself in trouble acting like that.” No praise or condemnation, no instructions about what to do; just simple true fact, and the implication that it my responsibility to work out.
    Now Mom, also a WWII Vet, was the family pragmatist (and boy, did we need one!). She sat me down and asked me to give reasons for my objection to the oath. I don’t remember what I said to her, but remember her closing advice: “If you don’t want to say it, just make up your own words and say them softly, and that will avoid more trouble.” I never was sure that I believed that attitude right, but I did mostly follow her advice — mostly. I changed up oaths, day by day. One began, I plan to eventually eat all the figs in the United States of America…
    }}}}

  • Karin Karejanrakoi

    There is something creepy – almost stalker-creepy – about ‘American’ patriotism, with its ubiquity of flags (especially on private dwellings), its insistence on belting out the national anthem at the drop of a hat, its catechism-like repetition of the “Pledge of Allegiance” and its hand-on-heart, moon-calf-eyed adoration of national icons and symbols.

    And, if it weren’t terrifying, it would be just pitifully sad that the most ‘powerful’ nation on the planet (which spends more money on weaponry that most of the other nations *combined*) is so utterly insecure that it must continually reassure itself – not to mention propagandizing the rest of us – about how ‘exceptional’ it thinks it is..

  • Damien McLeod

    I pledge my allegiance to earth and all the life thereon.

  • Daniel J. Schalit

    As a high school teacher whose subject doesn’t touch on civics, at all, I can’t address it anywhere nearly as directly as that. I do, however, tell my students that not only do they not have to stand or speak for the pledge, it would be illegal for me to demand that they do. And I sit during the pledge.

  • Rick Kasten

    For many years now, I have stood for the Pledge and simply not spoken those words. My rationale was I omitted them out of protest to what I felt was a lie, a deceitful alteration of history, because we never were a nation under God; we were and had always been just one nation. But after this article, I look at it differently. As worded, non-theists are pledging allegiance to a Republic that either does not include them (which would be akin to reciting the pledge to the French flag or to the Chilean flag), or worse explicitly excludes them (akin to black slaves reciting “one nation of white people, indivisible…”). Therefore, it now appears to me that refraining from the pledge is not simply an act of patriotism, it is an act of practicality from which my nation, to which I would otherwise wholeheartedly pledge my allegiance and my life, is literally excluding me. It simply makes no sense to me to pledge my allegiance to anything that does not include me, so I simply shouldn’t. According to the Pledge itself, our nation IS divisible, and I have been divided out, so for what practical reason should I continue reciting the Pledge?

  • Dick Springer

    The initial part of the so-called “pledge” is an actual pledge, but the part starting with “one nation” is a statement of beliefs, none of which are true. I don’t expect there to be liberty and justice for all at any point in my lifetime.

  • Geenius_at_Wrok

    Inherent problems with the Pledge of Allegiance:

    “I pledge allegiance . . . “

    Allegiance is a feudal concept, directly related to the word “liege” (as well as “alliance”), and refers to the bondage of a serf to a landowning lord. It means, specifically, loyalty and obedient servitude.

    ” . . . to the flag of the United States of America . . . “

    What does it mean to pledge to be the loyal and obedient servant of an emblem? Taken concretely, this is absurd: a flag can’t give you orders. But taken as a pledge to be the loyal and obedient servant of anyone displaying that emblem, it’s dangerous. The latter case turns a symbol into a bearer certificate of political authority: wave the flag, and I have to do whatever you tell me to.

    ” . . . and to the republic for which it stands . . . “

    Loyalty to one’s country is admirable, but obedience and servitude? Allegiance is an out-of-place concept in a democratic republic. The people don’t obey and serve the republic — the republic obeys and serves the people.

    ” . . . one nation under God . . . “

    I read this, as printed (without the comma), as indicating that the United States is one of the many nations “under heaven,” i.e., in the world. However, when recited aloud, there’s invariably a pause after “one nation,” a caesura that turns “under God” into a phrase describing the one nation, paralleling “indivisible” and “with liberty and justice for all,” and implicitly indicates that the United States is different from other nations by virtue of being “under God,” which they are not.

    ” . . . indivisible . . . “

    It’s true that no one has succeeded yet, no thanks to factions among the public who characterize their opponents as un-American and, for that matter, barely human. But the growing division between the parties — and between the egalitarian and hegemonist ideologies behind them — this a more remote ideal than it was even 15 years ago.

    ” . . . with liberty and justice for all.”

    As an ideal, admirable, but as a characterization of the United States as it exists today, laughable, to such an extent that puts the lie to the entire pledge: an oath of loyalty and obedient servitude to the emblem of an idealized nation that doesn’t yet exist.

    This is why I, personally, as a patriotic American, do not recite the Pledge of Allegiance in its current form. There’s simply too much in it that doesn’t hold up to scrutiny.

    If I’m going to be the loyal and obedient servant of anything, it’s going to be the ideas and ideals that led to this nation’s creation: liberty, equality (which was in Bellamy’s original draft, until he took it out for fear of offending a racist and sexist audience) and justice. The proper role of an emblem is not to receive one’s allegiance, but to represent it — if you take an oath in court, you swear it on the Bible, to the court. You don’t swear it to the Bible.

    Therefore, I would rewrite the Pledge of Allegiance thus:

    To liberty, equality and justice for all, eternal and irrepressible, I pledge allegiance by the flag of the United States of America, one nation among nations, one people created from many.