Yesterday’s ruling by a Federal judge in San Francisco (upholding one’s right not to use of the words “under God” while reciting “The Pledge of Allegiance”) doesn’t affect if I do or do not say the words “under God” in “The Pledge of Allegiance.” Even if this ruling had gone the other way, I choose to say these words as a Catholic; however, that is my particular choice. The actual usage of the phrase is not mandatory, nor should it be. What is at issue here is separation of church and state, not just two little words. While their inclusion in “The Pledge” is not in itself religious, the connotation certainly indicates a united faithfulness. Looking at America in 2005, I see a very different place than when the words were inserted into “The Pledge” fifty plus years ago.
Every day millions of American school children start their schedules with “The Pledge of Allegiance.” As a former teacher and school administrator, I can honestly say that during every morning that I was in front of a classroom (or at the podium before an assembly where “The Pledge” is commonly used to start programs) that I could not be certain that every student was reciting the entire thing. What I mean to say is that unless I went down the aisle and stood next to every child, there would be no way to know if he or she included “under God” in the recitation. I think that is an important thing to note, for any child can be taught to eliminate those words or substitute something else: “under Allah; under Creator; under Shiva,” etcetera.
In church on Sunday I have encountered this kind of thing. During the “The Lord‘s Prayer,” I have heard people (mostly women) insert “mother” into the prayer. In the unifying and communal act of prayer in congregation, people are exercising their rights to say, “Our Mother, who art in heaven; hallowed be thy name.” I never react to it or feel offended by this alteration in the prayer; the change of the words does not harm me as a Catholic or cause me to question my faith. In fact, I actually revel in our American freedom to be individuals, to think and act in a way true to our feelings and beliefs.
Unfortunately, school is a vastly different setting than being in a church with many other adults. With children, fitting in is always a prerequisite and peer pressure is phenomenally effective. I can imagine that a little kid who chose to say “under Allah” in a classroom of predominantly Christian children could come under scrutiny and pressure to fit in and say “The Pledge” like everyone else. While freedom of speech is a protected right as well as freedom to practice one’s own faith, that legislative guarantee has little weight in the minds of kids in classrooms across the country.
What the Supreme Court should grapple with is the connotatively religious nature of “The Pledge” as opposed to its tradition as a way to honor our country and flag. As a Catholic secure in my faith and belief in God, I feel no threat to my religious freedom by eliminating “under God” from “The Pledge of Allegiance” ; furthermore, I have no objection to God’s name being removed from our money or any other public commodity or institution. Our religious freedom protected by the Constitution is an individual one; thus rendering my faith as equally protected as yours or the next person’s. Also protected is someone’s freedom not to believe; therefore, we must consider the effect of these words as potentially offensive.
If we can legislate secondhand smoke in public, use of cell phones and seatbelts in cars, and perhaps eventually even the size of portions served at McDonald’s, then it seems there is an issue of public concern here. If my cigarette smoke bothers you and I am not allowed to smoke in order to protect your rights, perhaps my words can be equally offensive and even potentially more damaging.
The issue goes actually much deeper than superficial things such as cell phone use and secondhand smoke. I mention these more mundane items to illuminate that we as citizens are free but within context. Freedom of speech might guarantee that someone can sing the praises of the Ku Klux Klan all day long, but is it not a violation of your rights if one does so on your front lawn? Even if the person does it on his/her own lawn in plain view of an offended party? Freedom is contextual and conceptual; furthermore, our own individual freedoms are subjectively limited. I may well think that Paul McCartney is god, and I would be well within my rights to recite “The Pledge of Allegiance” including “under Paul” providing that I do not impose that subjectively held view on anyone else.
I think the answer to the question is individual expression. As long as it is common practice to say “The Pledge Allegiance” in classrooms at the start of school days, there will be potential problems. Substituting one’s own word for “God” seems a quick fix, but it can be easily construed by those who do not believe in any God as an infringement on their protected rights. The words could just be eliminated by individuals during the recitation, but that too could present problems of scrutiny, especially in classroom settings. An edict from the Supreme Court to permanently ban the words altogether will also cause a backlash, making it almost something of a rebellion to use the words whenever possible. Imagine kids actually using “under God” as a way to be anti-establishment?
Perhaps a more innocuous way to start the school day is in order. Francis Scott Key certainly got it right (at least the first verse anyway) with “The Star Spangled Banner.” It is a perfectly patriotic way to indicate one’s love of America and honor the flag without an utterance of “god” in any line. Since singing this song is fairly difficult, it could be recited without singing it just as “The Pledge Allegiance” is today. In doing so we can all show a love of America without offending anyone, and “The Pledge of Allegiance” can take it’s place alongside “The Lord’s Prayer” and other verses of its kind to be said by anyone anywhere in the privacy of their hearts and minds. That is what a free America is really all about.
Copyright © Victor Lana 2005