under god

The Pledge of Allegiance

American citizens are notorious for lacking historical knowledge. I guess it should not have been surprising then, that while Sarah Palin was running for vice-President she could only name one Supreme Court decision. On the one hand, she is not the best example of American historical knowledge, on the other hand, she is indicative of an appalling and almost ubiquitous ignorance. The Pledge of Allegiance is a poignant example of this historical ignorance primarily due to the attempt of the religious right to hijack the U.S. Constitution and even more so to their efforts to make the United States a religious country--specifically, a Christian one, and fundamentalist Christian at that. In the process, they have no qualms about trampling on the rights of the minority.

In the case of the Pledge of Allegiance, the pertinent part of the history is that Congress passed legislation inserting the words "under God" into the pledge in 1954. President Eisenhower signed the bill into law on Flag Day, June 14, 1954. Perhaps most noteworthy is this happened during the height of the "Red Scare" and the now disgraced antics of Senator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin. In truth, the United States was never under serious threat of being taken over by Communists. But that is somewhat beside the point. By definition fear is not driven by reason or facts, and a whole host of Constitutional violations followed the rantings of McCarthy.

I was educated in a Catholic elementary school in Norwalk, CA. The sisters were Irish and obsessed with the need to prove that Catholics were loyal Americans. Perhaps because of the strong push by the Knights of Columbus, a Catholic fraternal organization, the sisters quickly picked up the revised pledge and made it the start of our school day. The fence in my parents' backyard separated our property from a local public school, and the contrast between the two schools could not have been sharper. Many of the kids on our block attended that school, while my siblings and I went to the Catholic school two blocks away.

In the charm and innocence of youth, we used to refer to the "under God" edition as the Catholic Pledge of Allegiance, and the original edition as the Public Pledge of Allegiance. It was not quite that simple. And yet, "out of the mouths of babes"... There seemed to be an inherent sense among children that the phrase "under God" did not belong in the nation's pledge. In Catholic school, we were inundated with religion all day long. Each class began with a prayer, there were frequent celebrations of Mass and regular trips to the confessional. It was all part of belonging to the Catholic ghetto. Mind you, this was before John F. Kennedy ran for and was elected the first Catholic President.

There was nothing unseemly about being immersed in Catholicism as an expression of family beliefs. It ingrained in us not just a faith in God, but an awareness of the history of the Catholic Church and a belief in God as worshipped in that Church. Still, the Catholic school was about more than just religion. In the midst of Catholic indoctrination, we were also well educated in civics. One of the hallmarks that stood out in our classes was the non-religious character of the American government. Today one might use the term secular in an attempt to denigrate our society. But the secular nature of the U.S. Constitution was seen as a gift and a national treasure. After all, it left us Catholics, as well as other peoples, free to express and practice our religion as we chose. Inserting "under God" into our pledge of allegiance was easily seen as an integral part of our faith. Since it would have been unheard of for an atheist to attend a Catholic school, no undue pressure or constitutional violation was at issue.

That was not the case for those attending state schools when President Eisenhower signed the bill into law, and it is not the case for state schools, or state organizations, today. Decent American citizens who for reasons of their own conscience do not believe in God, should not be forced to pledge allegiance to God at the same time they pledge allegiance to their country.

It is popular for people who support the "under God" phrase to point to the use of "In God we trust" that appears on our currency. A similar lack of historical knowledge comes into play, for that phrase did not begin to appear on coinage until the civil war and was not declared by Congress to be the official motto of the United States until 1956. Even more blatantly than altering the pledge of allegiance, establishing the national motto in 1956 was specifically connected to the cold war and the fear of communist aggression.

Though never formally and officially proclaimed, it had long been understood that the motto of the United States was "E Pluribus Unum" (From many one). It is, I suppose, debatable as to whether the Latin phrase should have been officially designated the U.S. motto. Certainly, there is greater weight in its favor than "In God we trust". From the beginning, the United States had been a country that was forged from many cultures and traditions to form a singular bond of unity. Those many cultures and traditions include religions that were once foreign to the new world. Included also were and are those people who hold no religious faith at all. Yet all these peoples are equal in the eyes of the Constitution.

One further illogic in comparing the motto on currency to the pledge is that currency is essentially passive. Nobody cares or pays any attention to what is written on our coins and bills other than the denomination. They are simply passed from person to person to satisfy monetary debt. Reciting the pledge of allegiance is active and requires in its recitation the acknowledgement of and implied submission to God. It does not take much reasoning to see that the modified pledge is a violation of the Constitution.

The pledge is a statement of allegiance to the flag and the country it represents. It is not a pledge to a God that people may or may not believe in. In the United States people are free to believe in any kind of God they choose. They are also free to not believe in any God. "Under God" simply has no place in a pledge to a flag and a country whose constitution forbids the establishment of religion. If religious schools and institutions want to use the amended pledge, that is their right, although one might question the wisdom of such a decision and wonder if they are not, in fact, establishing two nations. But schools that are paid for by public monies simply have no right to place God in the nation's pledge any more than Congress had the Constitutional right to do so in 1954.

If little children were able to see that placing "under God" in the pledge of allegiance made it a religious statement, why cannot adults comprehend the same? The real question, of course, is whether or not we have a congress with the integrity and moral conviction to return the pledge of allegiance to its original and inclusive form.