What's wrong with the pledge?

Filed under: Holidays, Day Care & Education, Religion & Spirituality

The pledge of allegiance, with its references to "Richard Stans" and our "invisible" nation, is mis-quoted every morning by public school children across the nation. There are those, however, who are unhappy about this, most famously because of the two-word phrase added in the 1950's in order to ward off the communist threat.

The pledge was written in 1892 to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Columbus' arrival in the new world by Francis Bellamy, a Baptist minister and Christian Socialist. The original version was "I pledge allegiance to my Flag and to the Republic for which it stands, one nation indivisible, with liberty and justice for all." In the 1920's, "my Flag" was changed, against Bellamy's wishes, to "the Flag of the United States of America."

The phrase "under God" was added in 1954 due to pressure from the Knights of Columbus, a Catholic fraternal service organization. According to Bellamy's granddaughter, the original author would not have approved of this change either. There is a lot of opposition to the recitation of the pledge, as it stands, by schoolchildren, most notably by Michael Newdow, an attorney and physician who, in 2000, filed a lawsuit in order to make sure his daughter could "go to public school free from daily theistic indoctrination."

A lot of people, however, don't get what all the hoopla is about -- why not just let it be, especially since the Supreme Court has ruled that students are not required to recite it? There are a number of reasons, actually, so in the interest of fostering understanding on this, the anniversary of our nation's birth, here are some of them:


First off, other than their parents, a child's teacher and principal are the main figures of authority that a child will come in contact with. As such, and as representatives of the government, their role in leading the pledge gives the impression that this is a religious nation. Barry Mark, a historian of religion, says "I lived in Jerusalem on a few separate occasions and witnessed first hand what happens when democratic ideals become entangled with theocratic ones." I'd just as soon my kids grow up knowing our country is a secular one.

Second, when a child's parents do not believe in a higher power, the affirmation by their teacher that not only is there a God, but that our country is subordinate to it, sets up a conflict between the two authority figures. Children are, hopefully, told to listen to their teacher and obey them, but what about when what the teacher says is the opposite of what the parents say? Who should the child listen to?

This can, however, be seen as an opportunity to teach a child about differing belief sets. "I consider the fact that my daughter says 'the Pledge' an opportunity to continue a conversation with her about these issues and the circumstances out of which they have come to exist," says Mr. Mark. "Stepping into public school, she becomes part of a complex society with a lion's share of problems and contradictions."

Lastly, there is the implied acceptance of the existence of God, something that not everyone agrees upon. "My son has told me he doesn't believe in god, and I believe him," says Michael Gene Sullivan, who adapted Orwell's novel, 1984 for the stage. "Forcing him to say he does violates his rights to freedom of belief."

Even the alternative -- not reciting the pledge -- is not really acceptable. Mr. Mark explains: "To me, the opt-out approach is like putting a band aid on a bruise; the bleeding is internal, so there is no real change in the situation, even though some comfort might be achieved by such an act. Imposed marginalization, whether done by parents or school authorities, can be detrimental to a kid's legitimate desire to be part of the group."

So what's a parent to do? Well, Mr. Sullivan, who also writes, directs, and acts with the San Francisco Mime Troupe, a satirical theatre company that specializes in political commentary, says simply, "I have a history of mocking it."

Our personal solution is a bit different -- rather than stand by and let the status quo remain in place, my son, Jared, proudly recites our version, in which "under God" is replaced by "under nobody." It works for us and so far, we've had the full support of other parents and Jared's teachers.

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Start by teaching him that it is safe to do so.