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Fix the Pledge of Allegiance, then let's move on

© by Jean Hay Bright

July 2002


“I pledge allegiance to the United States of America,

one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”


Now there’s a pledge I can get behind.  It says everything that needs to be said, and it removes both controversial phrases that have religious overtones.


Both? Yes, both.


The first controversy has popped up every now and then in the century since the Pledge was first written.  The problem for some people is in pledging allegiance to a symbol, an inanimate object.


The objection from various religious communities is that pledging allegiance to an object is a violation of the First Commandment ("I am the Lord Thy God, Thou Shalt Have No Other Gods Before Me.”) Remember Moses getting so mad at the worshipping of the golden calf that he broke the Ten Commandments? It’s like that.


I have to admit, that phrase has made me uncomfortable over the years, even though my church does not have symbol-worship as a defining issue. I have no problem whatsoever pledging allegiance to this great country, to the United States of America. But I do have a problem with pledging allegiance to any symbol.


Do I really, honestly, want to pledge allegiance to a flag, any flag, even that one?  How different is that from pledging allegiance to a map?  Isn’t a map of the United States also a symbol of this country?  Should we have hand on heart at every weather report?


I am willing to go to great lengths in defense of this country and the founding principles that make it so great.  I speak out as often as I can on those issues when I see them threatened.


And I do love our flag.  I proudly display it on national holidays. I’ve had a small one in the back window of my American-made car since I bought the car in 1993. I have pieces of clothing that celebrate the stars and stripes. I bought a red, white and blue tie for my husband at Sears recently.


But would I risk life and limb to save the Stars and Stripes from desecration or destruction, as the Pledge of Allegiance would seem to require? I don’t think so.  If I did feel that way, if I took that part of the Pledge seriously, I would be compelled to stop cars right and left on the freeway and chastise the drivers for allowing those flags on the radio antennae to get so frayed.


The second, more current controversy, of course, is around the phrase “under God” that was forced upon the pledge by an act of Congress in 1954.


I was seven years old in 1954, and I can remember our teacher explaining how we had to add those two words in the middle of the cadence that we had just memorized.  Even then, as a seven-year-old, I thought the inclusion a little odd, and even then, equated it with the different Catholic/Protestant endings to the Lord’s Prayer.  But I dutifully recited the revised version of the pledge, and went on with my school work.


At the age of seven, I was not yet well schooled in the finer points of the United States Constitution, the First Amendment to which reads:


“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”


It is a great and powerful compound sentence, that Amendment, one that has keep this country out of a lot of trouble.


And I have continually marvelled and thanked God for the wisdom of our founding fathers as expressed in our Constitution.


Those great leaders wanted a nation with an elected, representative form of government, a republic, which we now have. But they also understood the need for a comprehensive set of individual liberties, to balance the rule of the majority. Our powerful Constitution, including that incredible First Amendment, is the result.


In drafting the First Amendment, they were drawing from personal and national experience which told them that combining religion and government would not allow for the protection of those individual liberties. 


But wait a minute. Congress, by voting in 1954 to add those two words to the Pledge, did indeed make a such a law respecting an establishment of religion, in clear violation to the First Amendment to our Constitution. 


I understand, and appreciate the fact that they passed that law at the height of the McCarthy era, that dark, anti-commie period in our history where people who expressed concern over individual liberties were viewed as anti-American.  But, historically speaking, that did not excuse them.


There the phrase has stood for 48 years, until two federal judges took a fresh look at the issue, and made their controversial – and correct – ruling.


So it was with more than a little dismay that I watched the flood of people, including most members of Congress, who reacted so badly after the ruling from the federal circuit court. They lamented, they criticized, they conspired on how to reverse the ruling, looking at the First Amendment as something to circumvent. They assured everyone that the U.S. Supreme Court would surely reverse it. George W. Bush called the federal court’s ruling “stupid.”


None of the members of Congress, at least that I heard, urged calmness and explained the important historical and legal basis for the judges’ decision.


All this chest-pounding of course is flavored by our current “War on Terrorism,” which is against a well-organized group of religious fanatics who sincerely believe they are doing God’s work. As the members of Congress made a great showing of shouting “UNDER GOD” while reciting the Pledge on the steps of the Capitol, I couldn’t help but be reminded of Sen. George Mitchell chastising Oliver North over North’s presumption of divine authorization in the Iran-Contra fiasco. (Do they indeed not make them like Sen. Mitchell any more?)


The court’s ruling was not stupid. The judges, reading our Constitution rather than the mood of the American people, were absolutely correct.


Defending the Constitution is the usual fodder for conservative talk shows. Yet in this case we had talk shows that vociferously criticized the judges who made this latest ruling and the man who brought the suit, often in threatening language. Our own local radio station, referred affectionately in this household as "right-wing radio,” even questioned the parenting skills of any man who, by bringing such a suit, would of course be subjecting his eight year old daughter to harassment and death threats.


 Of course?  Have we really gotten to that point in the United States of America? 


And I’m confused about their reaction.  I understand, and agree, that we live in the greatest nation on earth.  And I also understand that our incredible, thoughtful, radical-in-its-day Constitution is a good part of the reason for that.


Are the people who object to this ruling also objecting to the First Amendment to that Constitution?  Do they not see, as I do, that the separation of Church and State, separating our multitudes of private religious beliefs from those imposed by the government, is indeed one of our greatest strengths?  After witnessing all the religious wars fought in recent years, from Northern Ireland, Bosnia, Afganistan, Pakistan and India, and now Israel and Palestine, do they not appreciate that our deliberate separation of church and state is what has kept religious factions in this country from tearing our country apart?


And if they don’t understand that, why not? Did they not learn why the Puritans left England? (If they don’t know the answer to that, here’s a hint – governmental persecution over their differing religious beliefs.) Do they not understand that in this country inalienable rights are not, and must not be, subject to majority rule?


This same local radio station also played a very moving commentary by Red Skelton, that great comedian and humanitarian.  In that piece, he explained how he was taught, word for word, what the Pledge of Allegiance meant. My heart was swelling as I listened in my car on the way to work.


At the end of that piece, Skelton said that, since he was a boy, two states (Alaska and Hawaii) had been added to this country, and two words, “under God,” had been added to the pledge. He could have ended it there, but he went on and closed his monologue with words like these: “Wouldn’t it be a shame if, some time in the future, a court rules that those two words are unconstitutional?”


Since I was a small boy, two states have been added to our country

and two words have been added to the pledge of Allegiance...UNDER GOD

Wouldn't it be a pity if someone said that is a prayer

and that would be eliminated from schools too?

                                                                                                Red Skelton 


The talk show hosts crowed about Skelton being ahead of his time, criticizing those judges decades before this decision was reached. Sock it to them, Red.


I had a very different take on his comments.  My reaction was to marvel at Skelton’s wisdom.  He knew immediately, and apparently was willing to voice the sentiment publicly, that the inclusion of those words by an act of Congress was indeed a violation of the Constitution. Why else would he have even brought up the issue? He could have left those closing remarks unspoken, and it would still have been a very powerful piece.


But he knew that act of Congress would eventually be overturned, because, after all, the Constitution trumps any subsequent law passed, no matter how well intentioned, no matter how many people were like him and thought the inclusion of those words was a nice touch.


And he didn’t want people to get all riled up about it when the inevitable happened.


Skelton, I believe, was preparing people all over this country for the court decision that took 48 years to be made.  He was gently, in his own inimitable way, advising people to calmly accept the decision when it came, as he knew it would. He wanted people to understand that, under our great Constitution, we couldn’t include that nice phrase and order it recited in public schools, but oh well, we move on.


And that is what I think we should all do.


 “I pledge allegiance

to the United States of America,

one nation, indivisible,

with liberty and justice for all.”


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