When I was a kid, I recited the Pledge of Allegiance in school. By rote, obediently. Elementary school days of hand-over-heart and guileless allegiance.
Then middle school rolled around. It became less cool, sure, but still unchallenged. It was patriotic at least, during a post-9/11 time when car flags flew in unison.
But in response to the intercom’s summons most high school mornings, I stayed quiet. When I lacked the resolve, I admit I moved my lips. Muscle memory, maybe. Or was it social? Either way, it was my silent protest.
At first, I simply resented anything that smacked of indoctrination.
Young kids memorize and regurgitate. They promise allegiance they hardly comprehend to a country they hardly know, instead of to the values it claims to treasure. We become an audience primed for history lessons of American exceptionalism and for politicians’ claims that reinforce the narrative.
After a while, I began remaining silent out of respect for the First Amendment.
I remembered when I was in elementary school, one friend stayed seated while the rest of us swore fealty. She was Jehovah’s Witness – something none of us understood – and offered an oath of allegiance only to God. Thankfully, on behalf of a clear majority in West Virginia State Board of Ed v. Barnette (1943), Justice Robert Jackson reversed an earlier decision (Minersville School District v. Gobitis, 1940) that deprived Jehovah’s Witness students of their Free Exercise rights and coerced them into patriotism-at-peer-pressure-gunpoint.
“Compulsory unification of opinion achieves only the unanimity of the graveyard,” he argued.
I wondered how she must have felt those many years ago. Alienated, excluded. Or maybe that’s just how I felt then – even at an age more conducive to understanding the situation’s dynamics.
Should kids like us be forced to protest the Pledge, I mulled, even at risk of stigma? Probably not, I thought.
The 1954 inclusion of “under God” in the Pledge only made things worse. Some now argue that the God insertion makes recitation of the Pledge in public schools unconstitutional.
Attorney Michael Newdow is one of them. Representing many clients over the past decade, he has attempted to sue “under God” out of the Pledge on grounds that it violates the Establishment Clause. And despite his best efforts, as Rob Boston recounts, he has yet to succeed.
The Supreme Court just refused to review Newdow’s most recent effort. Some might say that’s good, given the court’s conservative leanings, but it dodges Newdow’s concern: The Pledge now includes “words that divide us on the basis of religion.” Words that privilege religion’s theism over non-religion’s agnosticism and atheism, undermining the very unity the Pledge is intended to foster.
I’m sure you know the story. In hopes of setting ourselves apart from the godless commies – The Russians are coming! Hide under your desk! – President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed into law a new phrase for the Pledge: “one nation, under God.”
Current law (which Newdow wants overturned) considers the language as no more than ceremonial deism, a reference to our past devoid of religious sentiment but beneficial to national solidarity.
Which strikes me as dumb.
The language is not post-modernly written as “under/without God” or “under God(?),” so it sure can’t simultaneously allow for both. Claiming it lacks exclusive meaning only offends and disrespects those for whom the word God has profound meaning. After all, some treat the signifier so deferentially that they only approximate it, with G-d and the like.
Let’s not enervate the word in court. Church-state separation exists to protect the government from religion and religion from government. But with the Pledge, as it’s written, each infringes on the other.
The First Amendment guarantees me the right not to believe I’m “under God” just the same as it guarantees others the right to believe they are.
Here, we meaningfully get neither.
Kurt Ostrow -- Brown University '13.5, Religious Studies -- is interning with Americans United’s Field Department this summer.