Remove God from Pledge

October 22, 2003|By Sheryl McCarthy

NOW THAT the Supreme Court is planning to decide whether public schools can require teachers to lead students in reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, the public debate is sure to get loud and emotional.

The pledge, with its now-controversial phrase "one nation, under God," came bounding back big-time after Sept. 11, when outraged Americans and their politicians, suffused with patriotism, determined to impose loyalty tests on everybody. One way of doing this was to label anyone who questioned the government's response to 9/11 or dared to ponder the reasons for the attack as unpatriotic. Another way was to introduce bills making the Pledge of Allegiance mandatory in the public schools.

I have no patience with people who constantly try to infuse public institutions with their religion. This includes those who try by various means to bring organized prayer into the public schools. And I applauded the federal judge who ordered Alabama Supreme Court Justice Roy Moore to move that huge monument to the Ten Commandments out of the state courthouse.

All of these situations involve Christians who are trying to impose their religious values on others. The Pledge of Allegiance, which was a regular feature of my growing up, appears more benign.

My public school classmates and I suffered no apparent ill effects from being required to stand up in class and publicly declare our love for our country five days a week for at least eight years. Nor does the pledge's description of the United States as being a nation "under God" endorse any particular belief system.

The person reciting it gives the nod to the idea of a creator, which many Americans share. But the reciter could be Christian, Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim or whatever. Since the number of students who come from families that embrace true atheism is probably quite small, and any student has the legal right to decline to say the pledge, its use in the public schools doesn't seem on the surface to be particularly harmful to anybody.

To those who argue that the pledge really does endorse religion, it doesn't help that Michael Newdow, the Californian who brought the lawsuit challenging the use of the pledge, is something of a zealot whose goal is to remove all shreds of religion from public life, including taking the "In God We Trust" motto off our money. Even his daughter, on whose behalf the lawsuit was filed, has reportedly said she enjoys reciting the pledge in school.

At a time when forces in American life are attempting to mix nationalism with God in our battle against terrorism, however, I'm worried about people using the pledge and other declarations of loyalty for political purposes. Quite a lot of the trouble that exists in the world today exists because governments believe they're acting with God's blessing, and that in their actions in the world the forces of right are on their side and against their enemies.

What easier way to drive this point home than to start with indoctrinating schoolchildren? At this particular point in history, having millions of children, many of them under some coercion from their teachers, declaring that the United States is a nation "under God" is a very potent statement, suggesting that not only is religion a part of our history, but that what we do is right, while what our adversaries do isn't.

In the months ahead, as the Supreme Court hears arguments in this case and we wait for its decision, every politician in America will be standing up and proclaiming that he or she supports the Pledge of Allegiance as it is and that American schoolchildren should be saying it.

But it's dangerous when we start injecting God into political debates, and there's something wrong about asking schoolchildren to declare their belief in God at the same time that we ask them to pledge their loyalty to their country.

It's time to amend the Pledge of Allegiance. It was recited by Americans for 62 years until Congress, during the Cold War, decided to insert the words "under God" as a slap at the Soviets.

The pledge was fine for all those years without those words, and it would be again.

Sheryl McCarthy is a columnist for Newsday, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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