By most standards, Lisa and John are model citizens. He's a veteran, they are both college grads, and they've been married for over ten years. Both have good jobs, John in high-tech and Lisa in the medical field. They live in the Boston suburbs, send their kids to public school, and spend most of their waking hours juggling busy schedules involving work, school, and the kids' activities.
"Our six-year-old daughter came home from first grade very confused," Lisa explains. "In school she was taught to stand up each morning and declare that we are a nation under God, but she knows that mommy and daddy don't believe in any gods. She wanted to know, why does the school say there's a God when mommy and daddy say there isn't?"
Lisa and John, who both consider themselves Humanists, explained to their daughter that not all Americans believe in divinities, and that the "under God" wording was added to the Pledge of Allegiance by people who thought it was important. Trying not to overwhelm the small child with too much information, they simply explained that people who don't believe in God should not have their patriotism questioned.
Of course, Lisa and John are right. The Constitution guarantees religious freedom, including the right to not believe, as well as the separation of church and state. The Constitution also forbids religious tests for public office, making it clear that religiosity and good citizenship are unrelated concepts.
"She's a confident little girl and she knows that we are good citizens," John explains. "But she takes words seriously, and she was obviously troubled by the fact that the school was saying one thing and her parents were saying another."
Lisa and John feel that they gave their daughter the assurances she needs, but they nevertheless resent that, on a daily basis in school, she must confront a religious truth claim that contradicts their family's beliefs. "Why should my child go to school every day to be told by the school, in an official flag-salute ceremony with teachers and classmates, that the religious views we've been teaching her are wrong?" John asks. "We teach her good values, right from wrong. She's a good girl, and her family's religion shouldn't be disparaged by her school."
Lisa expresses concern that the "under God" wording strongly implies that nonbelievers are less patriotic than those who believe. "This is a patriotic exercise, let's be clear about that," she says. "So if this official patriotic ceremony, conducted every day with hand over heart, declares that our country is under God, then obviously the inference is that true patriots must believe in God. That's always made me uneasy, but now that my kids are getting to school age it really worries me."
And John and Lisa are not alone. From sea to shining sea, secular Americans who love their country find themselves dealing with the problem of governmental religiosity in an age when religious activists are politically engaged, well funded, and ready to assert their agenda on such issues. As such, anyone who questions governmental God-talk immediately becomes a participant in the culture wars.
The problem, says Ron, a father of two from California, is that many Americans are oblivious to history. "A lot of people think the Pledge was written by the Founding Fathers," he says, when in fact it was actually written about a century later, in 1892, for a children's magazine. That original Pledge had no religious language, as it promised allegiance to "one nation indivisible." Though it proved catchy and was eventually utilized widely by schools, it remained secular until the "under God" wording was added in 1954 at the height of the McCarthy era, after much lobbying by the Knights of Columbus and other religious groups.
Around the same time that "under God" was added to the official federal version of the Pledge, religious lobbyists succeeded in convincing Congress to make "In God We Trust" the national motto. Again, Ron says many Americans are unaware that this religious motto was adopted only as recently as the 1950s.
"The real motto of this country, from the days of the Founders, was E Pluribus Unum," he says, referring to the Latin motto (meaning "Out of many, one") found on the Great Seal of the United States, which dates back to 1782. Ron and others point to what they feel is the beauty of E Pluribus Unum, in that it exemplifies the federal structure of the country (out of many states, one nation) and the pluralistic, melting-pot nature of the American population (out of many peoples, one American people).
Thus, secular parents like John, Lisa, and Ron teach their kids that America's sharp turn toward public religiosity actually contradicts traditional American values. Religious conservatives can cherry pick examples of the Founders making religious references, of course, but such arguments ignore the fact that the Founders did not have a religious pledge, a religious national motto, or for that matter an official annual National Day of Prayer. To be sure, practical politics in the 18th century required a certain level of respect be paid to religion, but what's most remarkable about the Founders is not their religiosity, but their secularism. Many Founders, such as Thomas Jefferson, considered themselves Deists and rejected outright the notion of revelation-based religion.
Some have argued that secular families and children should simply stop complaining, that they should learn to accept official governmental bias against their religious views. If the Pledge wording really bothers you, these people argue, then don't participate in the flag-salute ceremony each day. (The Supreme Court ruled in 1943, in a case involving a Jehovah's Witnesses child, that schools cannot force children to participate in the Pledge.) This argument assumes, however, that nonparticipation is an easy option, but numerous documented instances of harassment toward those who refuse to participate in patriotic exercises suggest otherwise.
Even more importantly, secular families feel that the burden of resiliency should not rest with the child, who simply comes to school expecting to be treated as an equal, but with the government, which has a duty to treat all children equally. "My child doesn't want to sit out while the rest of her class says the Pledge," argues Melissa, an Illinois mother of a junior high student. "No kid likes to be the odd one, the one who's different. She wants to participate like everyone else, but she doesn't want the government criticizing our family's religious beliefs."
Some secular parents are active in Humanist and atheist communities, whereas others simply have no group affiliation. Almost all of them, however, are more likely to spend Sunday morning in a museum than a church, and all must find ways of dealing with the religiosity that is regularly imposed on their kids. Though it comes in various forms, the most persistent problem seems to be the regular, often daily, recitation of the religious Pledge of Allegiance in schools.
These secular families address this issue in different ways, depending on numerous factors - their own willingness to be visible dissenters, the temperment of their child, the level of sympathy of teachers and administrators, the religious and patriotic climate in the school community, and other factors. Most atheist and Humanist children indeed participate in the Pledge, though many parents report that their kids discreetly remain silent while the words "under God" are spoken. (Melissa's daughter quietly, and cleverly, says "under law" instead.)
Most secular parents are not thrilled with such compromises, but realize that there are few better options. "By participating, even if you don't say 'under God,' you are validating the religious language, because nobody knows that you aren't saying the religious words," John says. "By standing and participating, you give the appearance of unanimity. It perpetuates the ridiculous idea that all patriotic people believe in God."
Regardless of how secular families deal with the issue, most wish they simply weren't forced to do so. They see the entire dilemma as being caused by overzealous religious conservatives and the politicians who are reluctant to stand up to them, fearful of doing the right thing to keep government out of the religion business and protect the rights of minorities.
To illustrate what it's like to have their religious views rejected on a daily basis by the schools, atheist and Humanist parents suggest imagining a hypothetical where the Pledge wording is changed to "one nation, under Jesus." There would be no question, of course, that such a Pledge would discriminate against Hindus, Jews, and Muslims. As such, atheist and Humanist parents argue, the "under God" wording is really no different. The assertion that a country is "under God" is, by definition, a specific religious truth claim, a claim that is believed by some and not others.
Since America is growing increasingly secular, especially among the younger generation, this is a problem that is unlikely to go away soon. But until it does, the goal of true indivisibility may remain elusive.
Note: All names were changed for this article.
See the original Pledge (pre-McCarthy) here: Porky Pig Pledge
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Text copyright 2011 David Niose
Dave's new book, Nonbeliever Nation, will be released in July 2012.