Comparing America’s Pledge of Allegiance to other political treatises is like comparing “Louie, Louie” to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. It says nothing about the true worth and glory of our freedom, much less our nation. For that we should turn to The Federalist Papers, the Declaration of Independence, or even George Washington’s 1783 speech preventing the revolt of his officers.
Let’s face it. Nothing turns our gracious, friendly, reasonable nature as Americans into sour, petulant nationalists more quickly than the Pledge. In Utah, law has required its recitation by intermediate and high school students. The sooner we admit that it’s a meaningless nod of ceremony toward a false sense of citizenship, the better. That it’s been forced upon the young of our society should bother us at least a little. Rather than lead our students through a reading of Madison, Hamilton and Jay, we’d rather force them through some vacuous, rote recitation.
Just look at the Pledge’s sorry, strange history. Hailed by knee-jerk politicians as “an important part of our American heritage,” it came into being only as recently as 1892. As the right-leaning but eminently reasonable Cato Institute pointed out, the Pledge was penned by socialist clergyman Francis Bellamy with help from the National Education Association, a group Pledge-loving conservatives despise. At the behest of religious groups it was modified to include “under God” in 1954, a time when socialists like Bellamy were hunted like animals. President Eisenhower knew full well the religious significance of the change when he signed it into law: “Millions of our schoolchildren will daily proclaim in every city and town, every village and rural schoolhouse, the dedication of our nation and our people to the Almighty,” he wrote.
The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals rightly cited those words when a three-member panel declared the Pledge unconstitutional in 2002. There is a sinking feeling that the person who got the ball rolling against “under God,” Sacramento atheist Michael Newdow, is more intelligent than most of our United States Supreme Court justices, who must now decide if “under God” ought not exist in the Pledge at all.
Nationalists on the right love shooting holes in Newdow’s personal life: His ex-wife is a professed Christian, his young daughter doesn’t mind reciting the Pledge. And don’t we have “In God We Trust” on our money? They’ve yet to confront his argument that “under God” constitutes an establishment of religion, especially if teachers are required by school policy to lead students in its recitation. It’s hard to argue against Newdow’s assertion that required recitation of the Pledge is the same as government telling you that there is a God. The old joke about “under God” is that, really, we’re one nation under Canada, a civilized nation that’s never required a “pledge” from its citizens. Canadians do, however, show considerably more respect for their veterans and war dead. At the eleventh minute of 11 a.m. on Nov. 11, the entire nation observes a moment of silence.
The fact that we now require recitation of the Pledge demonstrates just how little it has taught us. But, really, why recite it at all? Our Founding Fathers never heard of it or honored it. Why should we?