RARE IS THE schoolchild whose heart still swells with pride at the 400th or 500th recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance. It's a morning ritual. It means it's time to stop clowning around. It means the whole school day still lies ahead.
That's not to say the pledge doesn't have a place in American life, beyond helping small children learn how to say "indivisible." The Pledge of Allegiance is like a civic prayer, so familiar from constant repetition that the words themselves hardly carry any specific weight anymore. Flag, republic, liberty, justice, all -- they're comforting touchstones, a string of nouns that lie reassuringly in the American memory.
But the pledge -- and the country as a whole -- have been subjected over the past two days to a ludicrous and unnecessary spectacle. First a three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals declared the pledge unconstitutional because of the "under God" phrase. That elicited a rabidly hysterical response from members of Congress and other defenders of the American way of life. Late yesterday, the panel decided to stay its own order, clearly expecting that there will be further review -- and, God willing, a reversal.
The point the judges missed on the first go-around is that a daily pro forma nod to Heaven is not the kind of zealotry that's likely to bring the Republic crashing down around us. There's such a thing as being too pure about church and state separation. It doesn't do the country much good, and it sure provides plenty of fodder for right-wingers.
The Pledge of Allegiance was written by a socialist in 1892. Francis Bellamy was a Christian minister who had been driven out of the pulpit because of his political beliefs a year earlier, and who later left the church altogether because he couldn't stand the bigotry he saw in American houses of worship.
The "under God" part was added in 1954 after a campaign by the Knights of Columbus, who aren't exactly a disinterested party when it comes to religion. The idea was to differentiate Americans from godless Communists. Times have changed, though. Our enemies are no longer godless Communists, but fanatics who believe they are carrying out the will of, um, God.
Suffice it to say, the pledge doesn't carry the punch it used to. Once upon a time, pledging allegiance to one nation under God was a direct blow at those fiendish tyrants in the Kremlin. Or, looked at the other way, you could say it was an effort at mind control in the relentlessly conformist 1950s.
When those two words were added, it probably was an unhealthy moment for the American republic -- but time has smoothed over the rough edges so thoroughly that the whole thing is little more than a rote exercise. The words are fine now because the words don't mean as much.
That's why most American children have to repledge their allegiance every day. It's not that their nation doesn't trust them -- it's that it wants to instill a common little ritual before the bell rings for first period math class. It's the ritual and not the meaning that actually counts.
The United States is facing plenty of challenges these days, from within and without. Worrying about the Pledge of Allegiance needn't be one of them.