Under God Should Go Under (August 2003)

Every Memorial Day in the elementary schools of my hometown all the students rise up in the auditorium and recite together the Pledge of Allegiance. Almost all the students, that is. There are some who stand silent as the words “I pledge allegiance to the flag. . .” echo through the auditorium. Most of those who stand mute are temporary residents, citizens of foreign nations who wish not to pledge allegiance to the United States. Others simply do not yet know the words to the pledge. When I was in elementary school, there was another group of dissenters, a group of just one member. This was a group of Americans, a group that knew the words, a group that was just as patriotic as anyone else in the room. And yet this group also did not speak, for this was a group of atheists.

Standing alone in this category, I was aware that the Pledge of Allegiance is an important sign of patriotism and is a longstanding tradition of the United States of America. The Constitution is also a document of patriotism, also a tradition to be upheld. Unfortunately, since the McCarthy era of the 1950s, these two traditions have been in conflict with one another. With the fear of communism at its peak in 1954, the Congress of the United States added the words “under God” to the pledge. This phrase does not belong in our Pledge of Allegiance.

Using the words “under God” in an attempt to protect the country from the “heathen Soviets,” Congress undermined one of the most important values of American life, that of separation of church and state. The First Amendment to the United States Constitution states, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.” Certainly adding “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance indicates a belief in the existence of such a being and, therefore, the phrase should not be supported by the government.

But the illegality of “under God” is hardly the only problem with it as a part of the Pledge of Allegiance. The pledge is something that children across America are required to recite in classrooms every day. The idea of a monotheistic God is thereby thrust upon all children, opposing the beliefs not only of atheists and agnostics, but also of children from families following polytheistic eastern religions. Why send children the message that they cannot be patriotic and believe in Krishna at the same time? A child’s beliefs should not be based on what is said in the Pledge of Allegiance.

Not only do the words “under God” suggest the existence of a monotheistic god to children, and everyone else for that matter, they also suggest that the United States is an inherently religious nation. Nothing could be further from the truth. Although the vast majority of citizens of the United States are religious, one of the most important aspects of being an American is respecting and accepting all religious beliefs. As Americans we were horrified when we saw the women of Afghanistan forced to wear traditional Muslim clothing whenever they left the sanctuary of their homes. We cringed when we learned that the fundamentalist government did not allow television for religious reasons. We fail to realize, however, that every time the Pledge of Allegiance is said we are pressured into acknowledging a religious government.

There are those who argue that the words “under God” have some sort of traditional significance. To dispel that notion it is necessary only to look at the date when the phrase was added–1954. 1954!

Under God” is about as traditional as Burger King (founded that very same year, as a matter of fact). The founding fathers could do without “under God” just as easily as they could without onion rings. If anything, it is traditional to not include “under God” in the pledge. Besides, the tradition of separation between church and state is far more important than three syllables–just save us all some breath and take the phrase out!

So why not save the breath? Why not save the Bill of Rights? Why not save our freedoms? It is not right for a patriotic citizen of the United States of America to have to remain silent during the pledge or else risk sacrificing freedom of religion. It was a choice that I was forced to make each year in elementary school, as my patriotism and my atheism were played against each other in an unwelcome, and equally unnecessary, conflict. At every Memorial Day assembly I knew that I remained quiet not because I hated my country but, standing in the school auditorium hearing the chorus of voices recite the pledge in unison and feeling the quizzical eyes of others staring at me, the oddly silent American, I could never quite rid myself of the eerie feeling that because I was an atheist, my country hated me.

A graduate of Brookline High School, Mass., Kurti will attend Boston University in the fall. His interests include law, philosophy, computers and history. He plans to major in philosophy.

Freedom From Religion Foundation