This past Wednesday Bay Area atheists and secularists, myself included, gathered to protest the Pledge of Allegiance – or at least part of it.
Standing in front of San Franscisco’s 9th Circuit Court of Appeals the small group of 35 waved placards, chatted with each other and with passers-by.
The impromptu protest was organized in response to an appellate court decision handed down the previous Thursday declaring the phrase “under God” to not be in violation of the Establishment clause of the 1st Amendment. This ruling overturned a previous decision which found in favor of the plaintiff, Michael Newdow, who argued the phrase was tantamount to the promotion of religion by the government.
The picket seemed to be well received by many who witnessed it. Many honked their horns in support, including one SF cabbie who tapped out a jaunty tune on his horn for what felt like several minutes while waiting for the light. Several people came from as far away as Folsom though most hailed from areas more local. As a larger number people arrived to show their support than expected, several late-comers had to resort to fabricating their own signs, many of which were quite well thought-out. The messages were all very positive, calling for a stronger separation of church and state and a version of the pledge that applies equally to all American citizens.
Despite the positive messages and support from locals, there was at least one incidence of upset. A woman walking by became irate when she heard what the protest was for, loudly telling several picketers they would have to “one day face God and be judged.” Unfortunately her demeanor was met in kind, the two protesters she was speaking to responding with some mild jeers about “torture” and god being a “white-man with a beard.”
Regardless the event went very well and while not about to force the court to rethink its decision, it served its purpose; helping inform the public of the ruling and showing our disfavor with it.
“I pledge allegiance to the flag of United States of America, and to the republic for which it stands, one nation under God, with liberty and justice for all.“
Seems fairly innocuous. Of all the reasons there might be to protest the Pledge – its overt nationalism, perceived idolatry, or the fact that those who most often recite it haven’t a clue what it means – the little phrase “under God” hardly seems worth the effort. In truth, it probably isn’t. However as a symbol for the changes many atheists, agnostics and secularists would like to see in the way the government behaves toward religion, the phrase is very important.
To understand this, you need to understand a bit about where the two words came from. As the pledge was originally written in 1892, no reference to any religious thought was included. The sentence simply read “I pledge allegiance to my Flag and to the Republic for which it stands, one nation indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.“
As it grew in popularity and usage several minor changes were made, clarifying “my flag” as the flag “of the United States” and eventually “the United States of America”. When it was ratified as the national motto in 1942 it read “I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the republic for which it stands, one nation indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”
Private organizations, notably the Knights of Columbus and the religious organization responsible for the National Prayer Breakfast (another prime example of possible 1st Amendment violation) known modernly as The Fellowship, had been using “under God” in their version for several years before its official inclusion in 1954.
The man responsible for that would be George M. Docherty, a Presbyterian minister who sermonized before President Eisenhower on the need for “A New Birth of Freedom.” Citing the “militantly atheistic communism that has already enslaved 800 million of the peoples of the earth, and now menaces the rest of the free world” he spoke of the great freedoms America granted to its people; that it was freedom itself that made the country so powerful. After a long litany of what the “American way of life” truly is Docherty comes to his point.
And where did all this come from?
It has been with us so long, we have to recall that it was brought here by people who laid stress on fundamentals. They called themselves Puritans because the wished to live the pure and noble life purged of all idolatry and enslavement of the mind, even by the church. They did not realize that in fleeing from tyranny and setting up a new life in a new world they were to be the fathers of a mighty nation.
These fundamental concepts of life had been given to the world from Sinai, where the moral law was graven upon tables of stone, symbolizing the universal application to all men; and they came from the New Testament, where they heard in the words of Jesus of Nazareth the living word of God for the world.
This is the American way of life, and Lincoln saw this clearly.
Moving on to the act of children reciting the Pledge of Allegiance he continues,
I came to a strange conclusion. There was something missing in this pledge, and that which was missing was the characteristic and definitive facto in the American way of life. Indeed, apart from the mention of the phrase, the United States of America, this could be a pledge of any republic. In fact, I could hear little Muscovites repeat a similar pledge to their hammer-and-sickle flag in Moscow with equal solemnity, for Russia is also a republic that claims to have overthrown the tyranny of kingship.
Russia also claims to be indivisible. Mr. Stalin admitted to Sir Winston Churchill that the uniting of the peasants was the most difficult of all tasks. (He did not mention the massacre of the 3 million Kulak farmers in this blood-and-iron unification.)
Russia claims to have liberty. You will never understand the Communist mind until you realize this aberration of their judgment. Marx in his dialectic makes it clear that the communist state is only an imperfect stage toward world socialism. When that day comes the state will wither away and true socialism will reign forever. Utopia will have dawned. Until that day there must be personal limitations. As the capitalist state limits freedom in the day of war, so must the workers of the world accept this form of restricted freedom. Besides, claims Marx, trouble arises when you give men their unrestricted freedom. Human freedom always proliferates into license and gives rise to greed and war. They might claim that their servitude is perfect freedom.
Again the Communists claim there is justice in Russia. They have their law courts. They have their elections with universal suffrage. When pressed to the point, they will admit there is really only one candidate because the people are so unanimous about that way of life.
They call their way of life “democratic.” One of the problems statesmen find in dealing with Russia is one of semantics, of definition. Russia says she is democratic and we are Fascist; we claim to be democratic and call Russia Communist.
What, therefore, is missing in the pledge of allegiance that Americans have been saying off and on since 1892, and officially since 1942? The one fundamental concept that completely and ultimately separates Communist Russia from the democratic institutions of this county. This was seen clearly by Lincoln. Under God this people shall know a new birth of freedom, and “under god” are the definitive words.
The very next day at Eisenhower’s urging, a bill was proposed to amend the pledge, incorporating this doctrine of anti-communist Christian nationalism into our national motto. The 9th Circuit Court argues that this language does not promote or establish religion and on the specifics of the case that they were asked to review, they are probably right (such is the way with legal rulings). Nevertheless in the big picture this concept of American superiority through Christian heritage – the idea that the nation is blessed by YHWH, that it owes its existence to this particular mythological being – is not only nonsense, it violates not just the purpose, if not the letter of the law but also the cultural fabric of this nation.
America is not a Christian land that tolerates the existence of other faiths (or lack thereof). It’s a secular, pluralist nation where all are to be represented equally. The threat of Communism is over. There is no need to continue hiding behind the comforting skirts of a false national image, one that implicitly denies the legitimacy of people who do not recognize any sort of ‘god’. Worse yet the meaning of the phrase even denigrates those who do believe in a god – just not that god.
Reverting the Pledge of Allegiance to its originally adopted form won’t change much of anything in this country, but the fight to change it symbolizes the larger struggle for secularism against the heavy-tide of Fundamentalism and Christian exceptionalism that permeates large facets of society.
For more information on this event visit sfatheists.com or atheists.org. For similar events visit atheists.meetup.com/561/. All images made available by freethoughtguy with expressed written permission.
Additionally, you can now follow me on twitter: @OaklandSkeptic. So that’s pretty cool.