Divided, We Stand by Dan Barker (November 2001)

Freethought Today, November 2001

By Dan Barker

Would you buy a used car from a guy wearing a button that says, “I’m an Honest Salesman”?

That’s how I feel about those T-shirts that say, “Proud to be an American.” If you are truly honest, or truly American, you don’t need such fanfare–displays that actually raise the possibility of the opposite–because, well, of course you’re honest, and of course you’re proud to be an American. Why bring it up?

They must be bringing it up because they are insecure. Our country has been attacked, many feel afraid and vulnerable, so they wave flags, recite the Pledge, and pray “God Bless America.” This feels like brave action; but it is only an illusion that masks feelings of helplessness.

Many of us love this country without the fanfare. My family, like millions of good Americans, does not believe in God, so we could never honestly say “In God We Trust,” or recite the religious Pledge of Allegiance in good conscience, even if we did want to jump on the jingoistic bandwagon. But a Wisconsin State Journal editorial (10/19) admonishes us to put aside our differences and recite the Pledge anyway, because “The Pledge of Allegiance is a unifying pledge for all Americans.”

A “unifying pledge”? How does coercing my sixth-grader to endorse concepts that run counter to our family’s values promote unity? Whether my child remains seated for the Pledge or feels compelled to stand with the believers (the real Americans), a precious integrity has been sacrificed. It is a sham unity that glosses over our rich differences.

Where did this doctrine of “unification” come from? What do we think will happen if Americans are not united? If 20% of schoolchildren stay seated for the Pledge, will terrorists mail 20% more anthrax? Will Bush drop 20% fewer bombs?

America never will be unified, and that’s what we should be proud of. In a brutally disunited election, George Bush became president with fewer votes than Al Gore, and we accept him as the leader of our Armed Forces. But we are far from united in our allegiance to his views.

The original motto of the United States, chosen by the nation’s founders, is E Pluribus Unum (“from many, one”), not the 1956 “In God We Trust” nervously adopted during the Cold War against “godless communism.”

E Pluribus Unum does not mean “United, we stand.” It means “Divided, we stand.”

We are divided into 50 different state governments. We are divided into multiple religious, philosophical, cultural and political factions–yet we stand as a nation. We don’t have to agree. We should wear our disagreements as a badge of honor.

Our founders were fiercely divided on most issues–slavery, for example, was so divisive that they agreed not to talk about it for 20 years. James Madison vehemently argued against congressional chaplains. Thomas Jefferson, who wrote the Declaration of Independence, also wrote that the words of Jesus were a “dunghill.” Benjamin Franklin called for prayers at the Constitutional Convention, but only mustered interest from 3 or 4 delegates–so they said no prayers. Nor did they pledge allegiance to a flag or hold hands singing “God Bless America.”

Yet they manufactured a country that stands as a single nation, in spite of their differences. They never wanted to force unity of thought.

Now along comes a recall effort, led by former congressman and “Honest Salesman” Scott Klug, to oust the one member of the Madison School Board who courageously voted for the freedom of conscience of children who dissent from the majority on the Pledge of Allegiance. Bill Keys dared to vote his conscience, choosing the truly American E Pluribus Unum over the phony “United, we stand.” Shame on you, Scott, for failing to learn what our great country is all about. Don’t try to one-up the founding fathers: accept the fact that not everybody thinks like you do.

If Madison school principals are going to continue with the Pledge of Allegiance, disdaining diversity and pretending to a nonexistent “unity,” they should at least remind teachers and students that those children who do not stand for the pledge are just as patriotic, just as American, and probably much braver than those who do.

Freedom From Religion Foundation