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The Pledge of Allegiance: A Meaning-Filled Phrase

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Pledge of Allegiance: To the Flag or to God?

In 1892, a well-meaning Baptist minister named Francis Bellamy drafted a simple, heartfelt pledge to be recited by schoolchildren to mark the quadricentennial celebration of Columbus Day. Bellamy’s simple approach to the matter read “I pledge allegiance to my Flag and to the Republic for which it stands, one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” Minor changes were made throughout first half of the 20th century, but none were controversial until the 1954 addition of “under God.” This meaning-filled phrase was added as a result of a widespread fear of communism, which usually includes state-sponsored atheism. In the United States, this fear had led to the McCarthy Era, better known as the “Second Red Scare.” During this time, Senator Joseph Raymond McCarthy led the practice of identifying members of the Communist party, who were then prosecuted. These “members,” however, were rarely supporters of communism—in fact, none of the 205 State Department employees McCarthy accused were members of the despised party, making McCarthy’s widely publicized attempt to crush Communism a failure. Therefore, “under God” was added to the pledge in a half-hearted attempt to defy the growing support of communism throughout the world. Despite the popular belief otherwise, the phrase “under God” was not added during the time of our founding fathers’ creation of the United States Constitution. The phrase “under God” was added as a result of the pure, unadulterated fear of the spread of atheism, in an attempt to control the people of the United States, and convert the population to the “correct” religion in many politicians’ eyes—Christianity. Citizens of America have fought back, but the Supreme Court has yet to right this breach of the Constitution. In order to form a more perfect union, with a clear separation of church and state, this blatant ignorance of the rights of the American People must be righted.

According to a survey conducted by the US Census Bureau, 151,225 of 175,440 adults interviewed consider themselves Christian. In a country that is 86.2 % Christian and relies on a democracy with the majority rules system, it seems that in this case the majority rules and Christianity may be worked into our everyday lives, right? Wrong. The United States was founded with a strong base: The Constitution. The amendments within this constitution outline the basic rights of the American People, which include the right to freedom of speech, of expression and press, the right to bear arms and to a fair and speedy trial, the right to remain silent, and most relevantly—the right to freedom of religion. The First Amendment of the US Constitution contains a clause known as The Establishment Clause. This clause proclaims that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.” The reference to the Christian God in the pledge openly defies this, promoting Christianity over other frequently practiced religions. The majority rules system works in matters of election or voting on budget concerns, but when it comes to rights, The Constitution prevails. For example, in 1967 the state of Virginia maintained a law banning interracial marriage. Though the majority of citizens did not support interracial marriage, interracial couple Mr. and Mrs. Richard Perry Loving fought back; with the case Loving v. Virginia, the Supreme Court established that state bans on interracial marriage are unconstitutional. Constitution aside, some believe that since this country was founded primarily by Christians, it seems that state-sponsored Christianity would make perfect sense. However, those with this opinion have not considered the correct mindset of our founding fathers. In a nation filled with immigrants aiming to escape government-mandated religion, James Madison and Thomas Jefferson, two of the most well-known founding fathers, were active political leaders of a group that fought against the Anglican Church in order to establish the separation of church and state in Virginia. Madison even went as far as to ask George Mason, who had drafted a clause regarding religion for the Virginia Bill of Rights in 1776, to change a phrase from “the fullest toleration in the free exercise of their religion” to “equally entitled to the full and free exercise of their religion.” Madison later commented on this request, saying that “the right of every man is liberty, not toleration.” Jefferson advocated his ideas through the Virginia Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom. In 1782, he wrote that “the government had no authority in the area of religion except to prevent ‘such acts only as are injurious to others.’” Charles Pinckney, the South Carolina delegate at the 1787 Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia added another influential clause to The Constitution. His motion, which became Article VI, Clause 3, forbids “the use of religious tests in qualifying people for public office.” Clearly, the founding fathers labored to create a country where individuals could take pride in their own religion, or lack thereof, without pressure from the government.

In the United States today, many take pride in the clear line between church and state; the United States is a place where anyone can practice any religion. Essential to maintaining this is a clear boundary created by the Establishment Clause and supported by multiple Supreme Court cases. Religion should be separated from the state, and especially from the state’s publicly mandated education system. Of course, there are those who believe otherwise, such as Mark A. Noll, author of Christianity in America: A Handbook. Noll believes that Christianity is essential to governing, writing that in a republican system of government, “the whole people embody authority, legitimacy, and power,” but in a Christian community “the whole populace is the potential seedbed of the Kingdom of God and society, the setting of struggle between the forces of dark and light.” Though some believe that state-sponsored religion is a rightful way to promote their beliefs, the government has declared otherwise in multiple instances. From 1965 to 1990 in Schuylerville, New York, high school students who frequented the school’s auditorium also frequented a clear message: a ten by twelve foot mural painted along the wall displaying a Crucifixion scene. In 1988 parents spoke out, requesting removal of the mural. The parents argued that the mural violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment of the United States Constitution, while the school board countered, saying that the mural showed “man’s inhumanity to man” and that the other two scenes in the mural, one portraying two men fighting with swords and another depicting a man in chains, were not inherently religious. In August 1990, a federal judge ruled against the school board, agreeing that the mural displayed “a message of government endorsement of Christianity.” Almost half a century earlier, a similar case took place. In 1945, James Terry McCollum had just entered the fourth grade. James and his classmates at an elementary school in Champagne, Illinois were given the opportunity to sign up for a religious class sponsored by their elementary school. James’ parents enrolled him, but soon realized that the classes did not align with the family’s beliefs. The next year, James’ parents decided not to enroll him. Consequently, James spent the following year in the hall or in a room near the teacher’s bathroom during religion classes. After being teased by other students for not partaking in the religion classes, James’ parents sued. In 1948, in the case Illinois ex. Rel. McCollum v. Board of Education justices ruled that the classes were “an unconstitutional establishment of religion in the schools.” Justice Hugo Black noted that the State had been giving religious groups an “invaluable aid in that it [helped] to provide pupils for their religious classes through the use of the state’s compulsory public school machinery.” Following this case, “the McCollum family endured harassing phone calls, malicious letters, physical attacks upon their home, and even death threats.” As history usually repeats itself, it is likely that if and when an individual in the United States rights the breach of the Establishment Clause in The Pledge of Allegiance, this person will suffer many similar inappropriate consequences. Therefore, widespread support is essential to righting the Pledge of Allegiance. Just a decade after the Illinois ex. Rel. McCollum v. Board of Education case, another case regarding religion was brought to the US Supreme Court. This case, which reached the Supreme Court in 1962, was caused by a brief prayer written by The New York State Boards of Regents. A Long Island school began to mandate this prayer, and a group of parents were furious. The school board defended the prayer, saying that it was not compulsory, and a student could elect to stand in the hall while it was taking place. However, the parents sued, leading to the Engel v. Vitale case. In favor of the parents, the Supreme Court ruled that the prayer was a form of government-sponsored religion and could not take place. Regarding this case, Justice Hugo Black used similar reasoning as to why the phrase “under God” must be removed from the pledge, stating that “it is neither sacrilegious nor antireligious to say that each separate government in this country should stay out of the business of writing of sanctioning official prayers.” Historically, religion has been separated from schools; religion distracts from the learning environment that schools strive to maintain, and creates an aura of discomfort for the millions of Americans who are not Christian.

Since 1892, the public school system has supported the reciting of the pledge, which previously functioned as a successful patriotic declaration of an American’s love for his or her home country. However, the addition of “under God” in 1954 added a distraction from the pledge’s true purpose. Since then, citizens have spoken out. In 2010, a mother and father sued after a ruling that schools in New Hampshire must allot time each day for students to recite The Pledge of Allegiance. A three-judge panel of the US Court of Appeals unjustly ruled that the law does not violate the First Amendment because students are not required to recite the pledge. This is not consistent with previous rulings, including both the Engel v. Vitale and Illinois ex. Rel. McCollum v. Board of Education cases. These cases had ruled that though government sponsored religious events were not mandatory, they were still unacceptable. An additional, more highly publicized case involves Dr. Michael A. Newdow of Sacramento, California. Dr. Newdow succeeded in convincing the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco that “the pledge is indeed a government endorsement of religion.” However, the US Supreme Court later nullified the ruling due to a technicality: Newdow was representing his daughter, of whom he did not have primary custody. Though Dr. Newdow’s case did not have the result he had hoped for, it had an influential effect: it showed that it is possible to get “Under God” removed from the pledge.

As Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, a German playwright, poet, novelist, and dramatist, once pragmatically said, “He who moves not forward, goes backward.” In 1808 slave trade was prohibited, on July 9, 1868 former slaves were given the rights and privileges of other citizens, on August 18, 1920 women could vote, on January 23, 1964 poll taxes preventing blacks from voting were repealed, and in 1967 interracial marriage bans were lifted. The United States is perpetually moving forward, and the next step in the country’s development is to rid the government of the religion intertwined with it through the simple act of removing the phrase “under God” from The Pledge of Allegiance. This will create an environment for Americans to focus on the true meaning of the pledge: support for the country in which we reside.

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