The Pledge of Allegiance: Resistance is Not Futile


The American Humanist Association has started a new campaign to get people to boycott saying the Pledge of Allegiance until the words “Under God” are removed. I can sympathize with the campaign for a variety of reasons, but I suspect it is doomed to failure. As long as The U.S. Supreme Court stubbornly and wrongheadedly refuses to admit that the insertion of those words constitutes an endorsement of religion, the Pledge of Allegiance will never be changed back to its original, religiously neutral, inclusive form.

FlagThat last point should be emphasized: The American Humanist Association does not want to change the Pledge of Allegiance. It wants to change it back. And no matter where you stand on the question of God, if you really think about it, you should stand with the American Humanist Association on this one. Because they’re right.

I have problems with the Pledge of Allegiance being recited in schools on a number of levels. I don’t know that a single article can do justice to the complexity of how I feel, but I’ll give it my best effort.

First off, we’re expecting children as young as kindergarten and first grade to recite something they could not possibly have the maturity to understand. Ask them what allegiance is, and they can’t tell you. Ask them what a republic is, and they can’t tell you. Ask them what “indivisible” means, and they’ll say it means you can’t see it.

The Pledge of Allegiance is an adult commitment that should be made by adults, or at least by children old enough to fully appreciate what it means. Civics should teach us why our country deserves allegiance. It should not instill so-called allegiance through mindless daily repetition.

I was born into a family of Jehovah’s Witnesses, and I was instructed early in life that I was not to participate in the Pledge of Allegiance – not because I didn’t love the USA, but because pledging allegiance to a flag constitutes idolatry. Agree or disagree, that is what my religion taught. And government had no right, none, to compel me to recite a pledge that violates my religion. The Supreme Court eventually agreed in 1943, after first deciding three years earlier that children could be compelled to violate their religion by reciting the pledge.

What changed? I can only imagine that common sense prevailed (and enough Witnesses got their butts kicked by so-called patriots who failed to understand that dissent is part of the fabric of this nation).

Ever since the 1943 decision, no student could be compelled to recite the Pledge. At least, not by law or policy. But social and peer pressure is strong, and many schoolchildren are too young to realize they have rights and can stand up – or sit down – for them.

By the way, that is still the law of the land, so when the American Humanist Association calls on people to sit out the Pledge, it is asking them to do something perfectly legal.

The words “under God” were not added to the Pledge of Allegiance until 1954. For decades before that, the Pledge was recited daily without those words, and no one was accused of being unpatriotic for it. The insertion of those words was entirely and exclusively for religious reasons – it was initiated by a chaplain and promoted by religious groups, including the Knights of Columbus (a private organization of adults making an adult decision in keeping with their religious views). The KoC believed the pledge was “incomplete without any reference to a deity.” Religious leaders called on President Truman to add the words in 1952.

To conclude, as the U.S. Supreme Court does, that the insertion of the words “under God” do not constitute an endorsement of religion by Congress, in direct violation of the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States of America, is nothing short of willful ignorance and historical revisionism.

If you don’t believe the words endorse religion, I invite you to conduct this simple experiment:
First, find someone to express the view that “under God” should be removed.
Next, watch what happens. Pay careful attention to who defends the insertion of those words, and what their arguments are.

What many people don’t realize, because they rarely see it, is that there is a stigma attached to sitting out the Pledge. I cannot tell you how many times I was asked to defend my non-participation as a child. Not once, not a single time, did I challenge someone’s decision to recite the Pledge. It may not have been legally required, but it was certainly expected.

No child should ever be put in that position by his or her own government, using schools as an agent.

When the Pledge was recited while I was growing up, I would stand (I didn’t know I could remain seated) and I would pray in silence (turns out you can say the Lord’s Prayer in the same amount of time it takes to recite the Pledge of Allegiance).

Would I have remained seated had I known that was an option? Probably not. The peer pressure to stand would have been great (not to mention, teachers who honestly and sincerely believe they are doing the right thing instruct children to stand even if they’re not reciting the Pledge. Legally, such teachers are mistaken, but their hearts are in the right place).

And let me get this out of the way: it is NOT a show of disrespect to our military for anyone, child or adult, to decline to participate in the Pledge of Allegiance. The men and women who serve in our armed forces do so to protect our freedom, not to force us to violate our religion or our conscience. It is a perversion to tell me what I must do to show respect for those who serve, fight and even die for my freedom. What part of “freedom” are some people not understanding?

It is not unAmerican or unpatriotic to sit out the Pledge. It is unAmerican and unpatriotic to force someone to stand up for it when he or she objects to it on principle.

So here’s my advice to anyone upset with the American Humanist Association and its “Don’t Say the Pledge” campaign: Embrace it. Embrace every child and adult who exercises his or her fundamental right to sit out the Pledge, for whatever reason. Let them know, and let everyone around them know, that the right to sit down is part of what makes this country great. Do that, and you help this country earn the allegiance it is seeking.

As an adult, I typically remain silent for the Pledge during government meetings or other events I cover. But in my mind, for various reasons, I have my own pledge, one that is no less patriotic.

I pledge allegiance to the United States of America, to the democratic republic it both is and strives to be, one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.

[Clarification: This post is not intended to present a complete history of how “under God” came to be inserted into the Pledge. I am well aware that it was inserted during the Eisenhower Administration, not the Truman. And Eisenhower was motivated to insert the words because of a sermon he heard on the topic. The major point I was making is that the insertion of those words was motivated by religion, not mere civics].

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