By Eric Jayne
In the last decade of the 19th century, when the Golden Age of Freethought was at its peak, Francis Bellamy wrote the Pledge of Allegiance shortly after his tenure as a Baptist minister. It was published in the popular periodical The Youth's Companion as part of an 1892 celebration of the 400th anniversary of Columbus discovering America. The pledge went like this: "I pledge allegiance to my Flag and the Republic for which it stands, one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all."
Fast forward 60 years later. A Cold War between the United States and Soviet Union was intensifying. Our nation was saturated in Red Scare paranoia. Entertainers, public officers and other American citizens were blacklisted and investigated by Senator Joseph McCarthy (R-Wisconsin) which ruined the lives and careers of innocent Americans.
While Sen. McCarthy was gaining support for his fanatical Orwellian efforts some of his Catholic brethren had another plan in the works to officially alter the Pledge. The "Knights of Columbus", a conservative Catholic organization, added the words "under God" to the Pledge and recited the revised version before their fraternal meetings. After lobbying Washington policymakers Congress, eager to set our nation apart from godless communists, sent a bill to President Eisenhower to insert "under God" to the Pledge. Upon signing the bill into law in 1954 Eisenhower said, "From this day forward, the millions of our school children will daily proclaim in every city and town, every village and rural schoolhouse, the dedication of our nation and our people to the Almighty."
If the Golden Age of Freethought wasn't yet dead, it seemed to die when the President of the United States endorsed the Catholic altered Pledge as the established version to be recited by children, school boards, and other publicly funded institutions. This flies in the face of American principles and it's very troubling that less than 200 years after the Framers of the Constitution purposefully left God out of our nation's sacred legal document, lawmakers decreed the Judeo-Christian god as our quasi-emperor.
There's been two significant legal challenges against the Pledge that made it to the Supreme Court. One came in 1940 (Minersville School District v. Gobitis) in which a Jehovah's Witness family instructed their children to not take part in the morning Pledge ceremony because their faith recognized the routine as a form of idolatry and therefore sacrilege. The Supreme Court ruled 8-1 that public schools could mandate children to recite the Pledge in spite of religious convictions. The reason given was because national unity was more important than religious convictions. The decision was overruled three years later.
The next significant legal challenge came in 2004 (Elk Grove Unified School District v. Newdow). In this case Michael Newdow sued his daughter's public school district over the daily practice of reciting "one nation under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance. After the United
States Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals declared the school district's practice of leading children to say "under God" as unconstitutional, the Supreme Court overruled the decision in 2004, citing that Newdow (divorced from his wife) didn't have custodial rights of his daughter.
My own children have been, and continue to be, subjected to this religious ritual in their public school in spite of both my wife's and my passionate objection. However, we should all be disturbed that a tax-payer funded public institution has the legal authority to indoctrinate children to believe that a monotheistic god presides over our nation--a democratic republic made up of different beliefs in gods, creeds, and theologies. It's important to notice the capital "G" in "under God" because only the Judeo-Christian god is referred to as capital "G" "God"; therefore, our government has endorsed one god and limited the spectrum of beliefs that can be applied to the meaning "under God".
With the influx of diverse cultures--representing many different beliefs--immigrating to the United States, it's extremely important to make the secular nature of our nation's history and principles clear; all of which is eloquently laid out in our purposefully godless Constitution. Many of these new citizens come from cultures where religion is blended with government. If their children are raised to accept this unhealthy blend at home, and have this notion unabashedly supported at school by daily recitals claiming the United States is a "nation under God", then it stands to reason that the United States could evolve more undemocratic elements of theocracy that are all too common in places like Iran and Saudi Arabia.
In the interest of justice for all citizens of the United States, and religious freedom unimpeded by government infringement, the proverbial wall between church and state needs to be tall, thick, and protected. This is a Jeffersonian principle that not only serves the best interests of secular America, but also pious America. As Jim Baucom, a Virginia pastor who is a member of the Baptist Joint Committee (BJC), says: "[Believers] have a god that we love because we choose to love him, not because we are coerced to love him...and any union between church and state leads to coercion" (Christian Century p. 17, Oct. 19, 2004).
For six decades young and impressionable American children have been led to recite the Pledge of Allegiance that declares they live in a "nation under God". Instructing our children to step out into the hallway every morning, segregating themselves from their peers and teachers, is not a solution. In fact that only makes matters worse by setting them up for ostracism and social persecution. We need to fight the unreasonable arguments to keep "under God" in the Pledge. We need to fight for policy change. We need to rally around this meaningful cause and mobilize inter- and intra- organizational support.
In her exceptional book, Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism, Susan Jacoby challenges atheists and freethinkers to rally around common causes. I can't think of a more common and timely cause to rally around than this.