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"Under God" Overruled

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Get ready for the rhetorical fireworks.

Reciting the Pledge of Allegiance in public schools is unconstitutional, a federal court judge ruled today, saying that the pledge’s reference to “under God� violated school children’s right to be “free from a coercive requirement to affirm God.�

[There are many versions of this online; I cite this particular article because it’s written by my good friend, former co-worker, and forever drinking buddy Suzanne Herel.]

Students aren’t required to recite the Pledge, of course. Years ago, religious groups like the Mennonites and the Jehovah’s Witnesses fought for the right to have their children opt out. They won it, thanks to courageous judges who, during the dark days of World War II, ruled that the freedoms we cherish were more important than patriotic goose-stepping.

When the state-employee teacher leads the whole class in a patriotic prayer, that’s turning a classroom into a pulpit, just like any other official school prayer. Whether there is a god or no god, whether there is one god or many, is not what a public classroom teacher is paid to teach.

The “under God” often is portrayed as a harmless social convention with minimal religious content (the government’s official position). And at the same time, paradoxically, it is defended as a vital part of the nation’s identity and, as my Congressman has put it, a “fundamental recognition that there is a superior power at work in the world.”

Appeals have been made to the alleged piety of the Founding Fathers, who now are, according to Sen. Kit Bond, “spinning in their graves.” (Note to historians: evidently, Eisenhower was a Founding Father.) That’s absurd, but since liberals seemingly have conceded the whole of American history to conservatives, it goes answered.

The original Pledge is the work of Francis Bellamy, a Baptist minister. A Baptist then was not always something Jerry Falwell would invite to dinner. Bellamy was a “Christian Socialist.” He was known to leave a church if he found racism there. He was chased out of his own Boston church for his socialist sermons, and he ended up working for a family magazine, which is where the pledge first was published in 1892.

His pledge embodies the ideas of his cousin Edward Bellamy, who wrote the socialist utopian novel “Looking Backward” (1888). The Bellamys and many like them sought a government-run planned economy, with middle-class values and political, social, and economic equality.

The original pledge is this: “I pledge allegiance to my Flag and the Republic for which it stands, one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”

Bellamy longed to work in “equality” somewhere, but even a utopian was sensible enough to know that the guardians of the schoolchildren would never allow them to speak a word fraught with disturbing questions about blacks and women.

“No, that would be too fanciful,” Bellamy wrote, “too many thousands of years off in realization. But we as a nation do stand square on the doctrine of liberty and justice for all.”

Like any national symbol, the Pledge has been pulled out of shape by a tug of values. In 1923 and 1924, the National Flag Conference, under the leadership of the American Legion and the Daughters of the American Revolution, changed the Pledge’s words “my Flag,” to “the Flag of the United States of America.” Bellamy objected, but he was ignored.

In 1954, Congress, after a campaign by the Knights of Columbus, added the words “under God.” It was the height of the Cold War, a struggle seen by many conservative religious groups as fundamentally between God’s own America and the officially godless Soviet Union.

With two words, they turned a patriotic oath into a public prayer. Bellamy was dead. But it’s not hard to guess what he would have thought about it.

Some anti-abortion types recite their own version of the Pledge, closing with: “one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all, born and unborn.”

A liberal alternative has also been proposed. It gets back to Bellamy’s original and runs something like: “I pledge allegiance to my Flag, and to the Republic for which it stands, one nation, indivisible, with equality, liberty and justice for all.”

[Oh, those hidebound liberals, always trying to turn back the clock to the hoary past.]