07/01/2010 10:03 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Do You Pledge Allegiance to This Flag?

Fourth of July Confessions of
a Radical Anti-Ideologue

"I pledge allegiance to the flag
of the United States of America,
and to the republic for which it stands,
one nation, under God, indivisible,
with liberty and justice for all."

As a school child, I daily stood to face the flag, placed my hand over my heart, and recited the Pledge of Allegiance.

I didn't just accept the stipulations of the pledge -- I was a rebel from my earliest days. Nor, however, did I recite the words entirely unconsciously. While most of the time I made the pledge in semi-conscious rote, I often thought about what I was saying, wondering what it meant, and whether I believed it.

The words that meant the most to me were the final six, the concluding phrase of the pledge: "With liberty and justice for all."

Children have an instinctive understanding of justice and injustice -- of right and wrong. We don't always choose to do right, but because of our conscience, we are very aware when we choose to do wrong. The pledge didn't create this understanding in me or others -- that understanding is there to begin with. The pledge made a statement about justice -- it said that our nation stood for justice, and so should we.

I noticed that when it came to justice, the ideal often conflicted with the reality. As a child, acts of injustice struck me with a freshness that we often lose as adults. Whether they were directed toward me or others, these acts were painful and cutting. I found myself increasingly aware of every injustice I saw, and felt a compulsion to do something about them.

I felt less impulsive than the average of my classmates, more self-conscious and introspective. I saw the world around me as if from a slight distance, and because of this, seemed unable to live in the moment and just "do" what others would do. This was debilitating in many ways -- instead of just engaging in life and learning by trial and error, I often held back, judging my every instinct and action. But I also liked this part of me, because it made me feel very alive and aware.

I was embarrassed when I or others conformed to group instincts. When some cluster of kids would pick on an awkward classmate that seemed vulnerable to them, I felt fury at the leader, embarrassment for the empty-headed followers, and empathy for the victim.

I was physically strong enough that on the occasions when I was the target, I could generally (with a few quite embarrassing exceptions) knock the offender to the ground. The result often surprised me: some of these bulldogs became puppies when challenged -- they suddenly revered and idolized me. When power is used unjustly, it seems to seek out restraint, and becomes whole only when it finds it.

But as much power as the word "justice" held for me, "liberty" held even more. Given my self-consciousness, I was naturally independent. I prized my liberty, and fought any attempts to control my point of view. I rejected all litmus tests that imposed conditions on me for acceptance by a group. As a result, in groups, I was generally either a leader or a maverick, seldom just a member. If my group sought to impose their opinion on me, I would disagree more intensely. If they came to fully agree with me, I would often point to contradictions in our logic, sensing that truth can't be known absolutely, that every point of view is a point on a compass that helps us find our way.

Perhaps because of this, the words "one nation, indivisible" in the pledge didn't mean we were all the same, but that we supported each other's differences. Liberty and justice were universals - rights that everyone has. If our nation stands for them, then our pledge is to advance them for everyone, "for all."

Because it celebrated my independence, I loved "the United States of America, and the republic for which it stands." I was especially inspired by Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt. These were pragmatic idealists - they weren't mindless martyrs who simply sought to "speak truth to power" (often code for "pander to the prejudices of your group"). They waited for their moments, when injustices were vulnerable, then acted swiftly, with boldness and courage, to wipe them out.

As a fifth grader in tumultuous 1968, growing up with the anti-war movement, "the republic for which it stands" was not simply the current administration or policies of the government. It was democracy itself, and the Bill of Rights especially, that gave us the ability to organize, criticize, convince, and with the consent of the majority, change the direction of the country when we thought it was wrong.

"The United States" wasn't any particular place. It was the principles of liberty and justice for all. If my country's leaders or the majority of voters opposed liberty and justice for all, then they opposed my country, and were just pretending to be patriotic. If people outside my country prized justice and used their liberty to advance it, then they were patriotic Americans, no matter where they lived.

When I pledged allegiance to "the flag" every morning, I wasn't pledging myself to the piece of cloth hanging in the corner of the room. I was pledging myself to everything that came after that line, in magnifying proportion, all the way to the final concluding fundamental principle: "justice for all."

"Under God" stimulated the greatest inner conflict for me. My father and mother both grew up in the Midwest, in very religious families. But as independent thinkers, neither was religious. My dad in particular held a disdain for institutional religion. On our rare visits to church, he would mutter "horseshit" under his breath at the more ideological assertions made from the pulpit. He wasn't trying to win any popularity contests for adhering to group beliefs.

So I grew up without prescribed religious beliefs. As a result, quite frequently, when I thought about the words I was repeating, I would skip "under God" in my recitation. Churches, I had noticed, were as likely to be corrupt as any other human institution, and because they claimed the permission of God, more capable of great abuse.

I later heard it said that religion is the basis of morality, and church the home of religion, but that didn't make sense to me. My moral center was instilled within me from my earliest days, as it was for most all of my friends. Formal religion may have codified it, but I'm not sure it advanced it. In fact, my early fear that there was no afterlife deepened my morality, in an overwhelmingly powerful way. If life could be utterly destroyed, it seemed to me, then any act that damaged or destroyed life was more terrible than anything that could be imagined. My drive to fight injustice deepened, as did my desire to save the environment, since it was what supported life.

My environmentalism is what led me back to my spiritual core. Over the years, as I grew more awestruck with the world, I came to religion on my own. I slowly began to sense a deeper driving force that animated the environment, imbued it with what we call purpose, and expressed itself even in me, in my moral sense.

When I turned 25, an odd insight struck me late one night, as I sat alone in my office, after another sixteen hour day working to save the world from some injustice. I was eating an apple, and suddenly I realized that the physical constituents of the apple, and of everything else that I took in, would eventually replace every cell in my body. My body was not a physical thing after all - its parts would be replaced by new ones over and over throughout my life. Instead, "I" was a pattern or framework of some kind, a set of physical relationships, defined by the inscriptions in my DNA, through which matter flowed to create something that was much more than material in nature.

This is, of course, self-evident. But at the time, it felt like an epiphany. I was not just a physical being after all. I was a small expression of a much larger flow. My self was much bigger than my ego. Everything that I cared about - my values and principles, even everything that I loved - came from something more fundamental than my body. These were not born with me, nor would they ever die with me. The best way for me to use my life, in fact, would be to advance those deeper principles, those deeper expressions of me.

I have decided that, to be truly religious, is to reject religious ideology. Ideologues - whether political or religious - are those so unsure of themselves that they can entertain no doubt. To believe without doubt is to not believe at all - it is to artificially shield yourself from your uncertainty. People who consider the Bible to be a vast "to do" list of admonitions have never actually read the Bible, no matter how many times they may have recited its verses. They are willing to sacrifice the soaring spirit of religion, for its frail letters and corruptible institutions. Their mechanistic embrace of illogical, outdated, and unjust teachings is a rejection of conscious life here on earth, with all its uncertainties, in the selfish pursuit of an afterlife in heaven.

In light of this, separation of church and state seems more than sensible to a person who is both patriotic and religious. As a patriot, I know my nation can do wrong. As a believer in our essential Oneness - whether or not I call "Him" by the name "God" - I know my church can do wrong. Since both church and state are corruptible, combining their power - the moral authority claimed by one, the policing power held by the other - seems a colossal threat to liberty and justice, and to faith. It is bound to place them at extreme risk.

"Liberty and justice for all" has driven our nation to systematically seek to free an ever growing number of repressed peoples, both inside and outside our borders. The powerful contrast between that ideal and our day-to-day reality drove the end of slavery, the vote for women, the condemnations of missteps like the internment of Japanese and the paranoia of McCarthyism, and unfortunate adventures around the world. It will one day awaken a majority to the Constitutional violations carried out by the government, particularly the second Bush administration, which ostensibly fought terrorism, but in reality gave it power. And it will soon extend the right of marriage to all people who love and commit to one another in sacred partnership, no matter what their sexual orientation.

Today I remain skeptical whenever any group - conservative, liberal, or libertarian - claims to have codified morality, or secured an exclusive national franchise for liberty and justice. Rush Limbaugh, Michael Moore, and Dick and Liz Cheney all claim allegiance to them, but their shallow poisonous ideologies would destroy them. Liberty and justice are not things to be owned, given, or imposed. They are inside each and all of us, speaking softly whenever we experience beauty or ugliness, hear truth or falsehoods, feel love or hate, or distinguish right from wrong, and gently guiding us to choose between them.

To these - and not to the prescriptions of any ideology - I pledge my allegiance.