- Michael Newdow
Imagine every morning if the teachers had the children stand up, place their hands over their hearts, and say, "We are one nation that denies God exists." I think that everybody would not be sitting here saying, "Oh, what harm is that?" They'd be furious. And that's exactly what goes on against atheists. And it shouldn't.
We get so fixated on which version of the Pledge of Allegiance that we want to strong-arm children into reciting that every time the argument over its wording winds up in court, we blow our chance to teach kids everything they need to know about America.
We're about to do it again. A California judge put the pledge back in the news and back on its way to the U.S. Supreme Court, ruling the words "under God" are unconstitutional. The ruling only affects a few school districts in California for now, but that's enough for politicians to condemn judges and pass resolutions (as a unanimous U.S. Senate did a few years back) demonstrating just how little they understand what the flag stands for.
We could start by pointing out to school kids how the "one nation" part of the pledge becomes meaningless every time we talk about the "under God" part, which causes all kinds of divisions. Mostly among people who have no idea where the pledge came from or who wrote it.
It wasn't Thomas Jefferson or James Madison. The Pledge of Allegiance was composed in 1892 by a Baptist minister and socialist named Francis Bellamy. The original pledge written by him read: "I pledge allegiance to my flag and to the republic for which it stands, one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all."
The words "my flag" were changed to "the flag of the United States of America" in the 1920s. Congress added the words "under God" in 1954, when the greatest threat to the United States was the "godless" Soviet Union.
I didn't learn any of this until I was an adult and had been pledging allegiance at school and at patriotic events for years. For most people, old and young, the words are rendered meaningless by endless recitation. They only come to have significance when one court or another rules on whether the "under God" part violates, as the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has said, a child's right to be "free from a coercive requirement to affirm God."
Rather than use court cases like this to teach kids (and grown-ups) about the history of the pledge and how we've been struggling with these issues since the beginning of the republic, politicians condemn the courts then try to invoke God's name as a way to gain political advantage. Although, wouldn't a person who truly believed that he was "under God" be afraid to do such a thing?
Instead, why not tell kids that in the late 1800s the "one nation" part was important to include because our divided union still was trying to heal Civil War wounds?
Why not tell kids that the "under God" part was an offshoot of the McCarthy-era witch hunts that were spawned by fear and political opportunism?
Why not point out that the "liberty and justice for all" part didn't apply to all Americans when the pledge was written, or in 1954 when "under God" was added, or, some might argue, even now.
Why not reinforce the idea that as politicians and the courts argue over the "under God" part, no citizen can be forced to pledge allegiance to the flag, because the "republic for which it stands" protects the rights of everyone, even those with whom the majority of us disagree.
Then we should encourage kids to read the idiotic comments made by politicians as the latest case involving the pledge works its way to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Children would still have trouble grasping the constitutional arguments over the separation of church and state, but they'll totally get the concept of "God help us."
God help us, indeed.
- Michael Newdow