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Wednesday, June 29, 2005

The Pledge of Allegience - The case for a sacred pause.

This e-mail interchange occurred some time back after the brief furor in the California Appeals Court over the Pledge of Allegience. My friend Ronnie wants "under God" removed from the pledge. This is the conversation we had on the subject.

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From: "Ronnie"
Subject: Re: Pledge of Allegiance

Well Tom, it appears you were lucky never to have heard anyone ridiculed for not saying the pledge of allegiance. I myself was not only ridiculed, but literally punished at various points of my elementary, middle, and high school levels for refusing to say a pledge which goes against the doctrine of this great nation.
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From: “Tom”
Subject: Re: Pledge of Allegiance

I'm sorry for your troubles. I've seen youngsters not do the pledge before and they didn't have a problem - unless their behavior interfered with the ceremony. Did you refuse because of the phrase "under God" or did you refuse to say the pledge period? I don't believe a child should be punished for either, but refusing to say the pledge at all is rather different than refusing to say one particular phrase within the pledge. Are you saying that if all of us leave out the "under God" part, the pledge would be okey-dokey with you? What happens to my right to say the “under God” part?
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From: "Ronnie"
Subject: Re: Pledge of Allegiance

While I fully agree that you have a right to say "Under God", wouldn't you agree that it is unfair to those citizens who don't believe in God to be forced to alter the pledge?
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From: “Tom”
Subject: Re: Pledge of Allegiance

No more so than it would be for those who do believe in God to have to alter the pledge to exclude Him! For most Christians, the "under God” part of the pledge, qualifies our allegiance in a very essential way. Without that qualifier, the pledge might be seen to place the nation supreme and above God - a pledge few Christians could in good conscience take. Certain radical Christian sects even refuse to take the pledge at all, even with the "under God" qualifier for that reason. They choose to pledge allegiance solely to God and remain seated during the pledge. They should not be persecuted if that is their conviction.
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From: "Ronnie"
Subject: Re: Pledge of Allegiance

Being a free country, allowing free belief, shouldn't the OFFICIAL pledge be one that represents ALL people, not just Christians?
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From: “Tom”
Subject: Re: Pledge of Allegiance

But it already doesn't represent ALL people in any case, either way you say it. Our Jehovah's Witness friends and other groups, as I pointed out above, won't say the pledge at all, so you can hardly say it represents them.
Maybe what we need is an official protocol for saying the pledge that allows a brief pause after the words "one nation," to give pledgers the option to insert or delete an "under God, Yahweh” or Allah” qualifier as each sees fit. It's no more just for a small group of nonbelievers to forcibly remove a key phrase from the pledge that makes the pledge workable for Christians, Moslems or Jews than it is for persons of faith to persecute those who leave out the "under God" qualifier.

While I appreciate your right to pledge allegiance to your nation above all and with out reserve, as a Christian, I would like to preserve my right to state clearly - by adding the "under God" phrase - that, while I do love my country and unashamedly pledge my loyalty to her, God is supreme in my belief system. If my country asks me to do what God forbids, I must defer to my Maker. It is this sort of civil disobedience-done in obedience to what many felt was a higher moral law that stoked the fires of the great Civil Rights Movement and has been responsible for many of the great humanitarian movements in US history. This obedience to higher authority over the authority of the state has strengthened this country immeasurably and led our country to eventually renounce evils like slavery that once were supported by the canon of law.

America is remarkable in that whenever her citizens have risen up in the name of God (or whatever higher moral standard you may name - up to and including secular humanism) to oppose the country's laws which were unjust or immoral, America has been made stronger by that opposition. Such upheaval reminds us once in a while that there is a higher authority than the mere law of the land. Whether it's Jesus, Allah, Immanuel Kant or Confucius who guides your moral compass, you probably believe in something like "one nation under God" whether you admit it or not. So long as you believe there is a higher moral authority that is above the law of the nation, you’re in the same boat with the community of faith.

Without the phrase "under God", the pledge seems to say one nation above all; and I'm not sure that represents how most Americans, even those opposed to the current pledge, believe. The "America right or wrong" philosophy has in the past led to some of the most shameful episodes in our history. Pick one - whether it be slavery, the wanton slaughter of native Americans, the forced imprisonment and legal sterilization of the "feeble-minded" and "undesirable", the imprisonment of Seventh Day Adventists for violating Sunday Blue Laws, Jim Crow laws in the South or the long denial of equal opportunity and the vote for women. In each case, the people of this great nation have sacrificed their very lives, fortunes and freedom to strike down such laws and practices because they believed that even the sovereign nation should be subject to a higher moral law.

I would hate to see us lose that part of the American ideal that is represented by the simple phrase "under God" in the pledge of allegiance. I also don't think Christians should fear if some among us choose to leave "under God" out of their Pledge of Allegiance. As we speak the pledge in our assemblies, and we reach "for which it stands, one nation.", if we spoke into that sacred pause a whole rainbow of phrases expressing our diverse faith in something greater than even our blessed nation, I'm sure God would be still be able to recognize His own name in there somewhere.

It wouldn't matter how we said it (or didn't say it for that matter). Each time we repeated the pledge, we would hear ourselves speaking into that sacred pause with ringing clarity, words that tell us that neither this nor any nation may rightly require us to violate our conscience or our duty to whatever God or moral principle we may serve.

I don't believe we should rush from “one nation” to “indivisible” and remove the place where God fits within the pledge if it excludes persons of faith any more than I believe we should exclude those who choose to pause during that sacred interval. The pledge should have room in it for as many of us as possible. You do not offend me if you wish to leave God out of your recitation of the pledge of allegiance. Why, then, should I offend you if I wish to leave Him in it?

Tom King
(c) 2005

2 comments:

Richoid said...

Here's the real reason for the judge's ruling:

The Constitution says the government cannot attempt to establish religion… for the specific reason that most countries prior to ours (and a good many after, like Iran) tried to do so. The rifts that this caused led to revolutions, claims of murderous plots leading to imprisonment and hangings after each change of government.
And in England (the primary example of concern to the framers) this was all AMONG Christian religious sects.
The Pledge of Allegience is a tool of indoctrination (actually originally written by a left-wing zealot, BTW) for children to our country, it’s form of government, and to God. If that isn’t “Establishment of Religion” in any sane mind, I don’t know what is.
Look: Religion is bigger than ever (though morality certainly isn’t) and Religion is not threatened… but some religions, and everyone’s choice to practice it as they choose, will be threatened if Establishment becomes the norm… As it happens, the Pledge has done little in either direction. But the conservative movement keeps pushing for it. Be careful what you wish for… chances are your particular interpretations would be threatened by a government-endorsed religion as well as mine.
Conservatives always complain about the “nanny state”. Well, what’s more of a nanny state than a state that enforces you say your prayers?

The judge specifically identified the "Children are Coerced". Sounds like your friend was explicitly coerced... but we all were simply by peer pressure. I never said the pledge after 3rd grade, but never was punished (though I got lots of dirty looks).

Tom King said...

Rich,
This post referred to the original California case and not the more recent one. I haven't had time to keep up with what the judge ruled more recently, but....

I agree that if a child is forced to include "under God" when he says the pledge, or even he or she is forced to say the pledge if it is against his or her religion, I have just as much of a problem as you do.

I think you get a little shrill when you call it a "tool of indoctrination". I've said it all my life as a way to show "solidarity" with my fellow Americans and to declare my loyalty to a country I feel has given great gifts to its people, simply by not taking away our liberties. Making room for religious expression is not establishing religion. If you exclude any and all voluntary expression of religious belief, however, you're still establishing, if not a religion, then a philosophy - namely Atheism. It's messy to figure out how to make space for everybody's beliefs, but it's certainly worth trying.

So while you should not be forced to practice anything you feel is a religious act and contrary to your beliefs, at the same time, those who do have religious beliefs should not be prohibited from expressing those beliefs. That's why I argue that the pledge should retain a "place-holder" for those who wish to say "under God" and for those who wish to say "under Allah" or for that matter Buddah, Krishna or Jehovah. And for those who do not pledge at all, they should be allowed to do that as well.

I realize there are some right wing types out there whose zeal is misplaced. They shame us all and give Christians a bad name. These folks are as much outliers to the conservative or Christian community (not one in the same by the way) as communist guerillas are to liberals and socialists.

Many people have had a bad experience as children with the Christian lunatic fringe. In my experience they are a tiny, vocal and stupid minority.

I work closely as a public policy advocate with liberals and conservatives. Mostly, I find we all want the same things, we just disagree on how to get them. It has been worlds of fun figuring out how to work together to overcome our differences and accomplish things as a diverse community. But I get as much nasty, bigoted treatment from liberals as others do from conservatives on the kook fringe.

Try not to be too angry at your classmates' dirty looks. Mine beat the crap out of me every other day for about 8 years before I finally got big enough to defend myself. Several of those classmates went to prison, and one was executed for a multiple murder in Louisiana. I strongly dislike bullies, but I got over it. They don't represent, say Democrats, though they ridiculed me for not supporting the prevailing Southern Democrat views about persons of color. Everybody in my town was a Democrat. Some nice, some downright evil. Many radically prejudiced. It's not the party any more than it's the church. It's the choices we make personally.

If you thought that, as a Christian, I supported forcing kids to say the pledge or making sure they said "under God", you're wrong. There are some dufuses in the Christian church that believe you should. They tend to love hellfire and brimstone sermons to scare people into line. Again, these guys are outliers, and not, I believe, true followers of Christ.

You can't believe in the Golden Rule and want to coerce anyone. It's not right and most Christians will agree - they just don't get invited onto CNN to shriek for the camera, because that isn't newsworthy or entertaining. It's the idiots they put on TV because it's way more entertaining that finding some sweet Christian little old lady who agrees they shouldn't make the kids say "under God' if they don't want to.

That's just not a fun soundbite!

Tom