Last month a San Francisco Court of Appeals refused to reverse the 2002 ruling of a lower court that the phrase "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance is unconstitutional. Attorney General John Ashcroft immediately leaped to the defense of "under God".
"For centuries our nation has referenced God as we have expressed our patriotism and national identity in our Declaration of Independence, [and] Constitution ....," he said, and added that the Justice Department would "spare no effort to preserve the rights of all our citizens to pledge allegiance to the American flag."
Those three syllables, "under God" were added in 1954 to divide us "godly" Americans from "godless" communists. They also divided us into those for whom "under God" was wrong, unnecessary or trivial, and those who believed those words were right, necessary and important.
Fifty years of not resolving that rift has tended to obscure a more important question: Why indoctrinate our children with an orthodox religious belief? Does reciting that bit of catechism encourage thinking, questioning, civil discourse, respect for others, and the development of individual conscience?
Pledges of this sort work -- at preventing thought, reducing responsibility and promoting compliance. The fact that many people, and many of our elected officials, have latterly been proclaiming that the Pledge is some kind of indispensable Holy Writ suggests that the indoctrination has worked quite well.
But indoctrination is not compatible with liberty, and we do our nation harm to teach our children to recite blind oaths of patriotism and rote references to God. We are not a holy empire, with monolithic authoritarian belief systems. We're a democracy, with room for diverse beliefs and individual consciences. Should we be cultivating docile, obedient subjects bound to a single code of belief, or trying to generate thoughtful, independent, and conscientious citizens free to choose their own beliefs?
Especially today, with our schools underfunded, our teachers underpaid and under-respected and too many of our children poor, hungry or without health care, is making schoolchildren recite their allegiance to flag and God the best we can do for them, and for our nation?
A better exercise for schools would be to take five minutes each day to study some of the fine thoughtful prose of the Declaration of Independence or Constitution and relate it to current national events.
Actually, as our own "nation under God" is preparing to kill people and destroy life and resources worldwide, perhaps it is time for all of us to study that great testament to "Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness" -- the Declaration of Independence. I particularly commend attention to the "long Train of Abuses and Usurpations" of King George III that convinced the 1776 Congress that it was "their Right, ....their Duty" to declare independence and "provide new Guards for [our] future Security."
It's instructive to look at these Abuses and Usurpations ask if any of these shoes fit any of our present political princes. (This is not the entire list, but they are all direct quotations.)
"He has refused his Assent to Laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public Good."
"He has forbidden his Governors to pass Laws of immediate and pressing Importance, ..... and he has utterly neglected to attend to them."
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"He has obstructed the Administration of Justice ...."
"He has made Judges dependent on his Will alone, for the Tenure of their Offices."
"He has erected a Multitude of new Offices, and sent hither Swarms of Officers to harass our People ...."
"....depriving us, in many Cases, of the benefits of Trial by Jury "
"He has plundered our Seas, ravaged our Coasts ..."
"He is, at this Time, transporting large Armies .... to complete the Works of Death, Desolation and Tyranny, already begun with circumstances of Cruelty and Perfidy, scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous Ages, and totally unworthy of the Head of a civilized Nation."
Draw your own conclusions. The signers of the Declaration of Independence reached one -- "A Prince, whose Character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the Ruler of a free People" -- and they declared themselves Free and Independent of King George.
The signers also made a pledge: "...we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our Sacred Honor."
What should happen when a ruler pledges other people's Lives -- not his own -- other people's Fortunes -- not his own -- and his nation's Sacred Honor to change another nation's regime?
Should we not declare ourselves Free and Independent of such a ruler, and pledge our Lives, our Fortunes and our Sacred Honor to "provide new Guards for [our] future Security"?
Also note to whom the signers made their pledge. Not to God.
To each other.