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.