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Stand Up for Liberty by Sitting Out the Pledge of Allegiance

04/03/2013 06:55 pm ET | Updated Jun 03, 2013

Last year, an atheist couple in Massachusetts brought a suit against the Acton-Boxborough Regional School District, arguing that the phrase "under God" in the pledge of allegiance discriminates against their children because, according to their attorney, it "defines patriotism according to a particular religious belief." After they lost their case in Superior Court, they appealed to the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, which agreed to consider their suit. The hearing is scheduled for early next month.

Regardless of the outcome -- so far, such challenges have ultimately been unsuccessful -- the larger issue the case raises is the appropriateness of a pledge of allegiance of any kind in a liberal democracy. It never ceases to amaze me that, day after day, otherwise rational parents allow their impressionable young children to partake in a ritual so rooted in conformity that it seems inimical to the principles of freedom and individualism that underpin our country. And yet, in public schools across the nation, millions of young children are lined up authoritarian style, told to face an American flag dangling somewhere in the room, and are then expected to profess their allegiance to it -- and of course to God as well -- using words that many are too young understand in the first place. I suspect that most parents assume the pledge has a long and dignified past, that it's part of the American fabric, and are therefore willing to leave it unchallenged. However, its history is not nearly as long or distinguished as people might think.

Indeed, the pledge of allegiance was not conceived by patriotic soldiers making a brave final stand on some cold battlefield during the Revolutionary War, nor was it the inspired creed of our noble Founding Fathers. It was actually written in 1892 by a Christian Socialist, Francis Bellamy, as part of an advertising campaign for The Youth's Companion, one of the country's best known and highly regarded magazines. Taking advantage of deep anxiety among Anglo-Saxon Protestants about an increase in immigration during the final decades of the 19th Century, The Youth's Companion hatched a scheme to turn nationalism into profit. Through its premium department (essentially a mail order service that sold goods at discounted prices to lure new subscribers), the magazine began selling American flags and promoting the idea of putting one in every school. Seeing the opportunity to link the magazine and its flag drive to a high profile celebration of Columbus Day in October of 1892, one of the magazine's marketers, James Upham, asked Bellamy to craft a pledge of allegiance that would accompany the ceremonial raising of the flag.

Bellamy's original, 23-word pledge read as follows: "I pledge allegiance to my Flag and to the Republic for which it stands, one nation indivisible, with liberty and justice for all." Interestingly, God is nowhere to be found, and neither is any mention of equality -- perhaps surprising given Bellamy's socialist views. However, like many people who looked scornfully upon America's newest immigrants, Bellamy's utopian idealism was tempered by his profound xenophobia and bigotry. Not long after he penned the pledge of allegiance, he made these frightening statements in an editorial for the Illustrated American:

A democracy like ours cannot afford to throw itself open to the world...Where all classes of society merge insensibly into one another every alien immigrant of inferior race may bring corruption to the stock. There are races more or less akin to our own whom we may admit freely and get nothing but advantage by the infusion of their wholesome blood. But there are other races, which we cannot assimilate without lowering our racial standard, which we should be as sacred to us as the sanctity of our homes.

Hence, while the pledge of allegiance is widely regarded as a celebration of our patriotism and the "liberty and justice" upon which our nation was founded, its genesis can be traced to far more sinister fears about the racial, ethnic, and religious contamination that many Americans believed immigrants would bring with them.

Over time, these fears would lead to key changes in the wording of the pledge. First, in the early 1920s, the words "my flag" were changed to "the flag of the United States of America" amidst suspicions that immigrants might subversively interpret "my flag" as a reference to the flag of their homeland. The new wording took care of that. Then, in the late 1940s and early 1950s, as Americans grew increasingly concerned about the threat of communism, there was a movement to add the phrase "under God" to the pledge. This movement, which coincided with a variety of attempts to inject religion into the public sphere in order to differentiate America from the godless communists, was ultimately successful. In 1954, Congress officially recognized the phrase "under God" in the pledge of allegiance -- over 60 years after it was originally written and almost two hundred years after our founding fathers labored to establish a nation that kept the church and state separate.

Today, regardless of their religious beliefs, public school students in most states are required by law to endure the pledge of allegiance, complete with its State-sponsored affirmation of God. While there are generally exceptions carved out for objectors (thanks to a 1943 Supreme Court ruling that said children couldn't be forced to recite it), they must nevertheless watch as their classmates stand in unison and, with hands over hearts, utter a government-mandated pledge of loyalty to the United States. Since such a ritual tends to evoke images of a fascist regime rather than a modern democracy, perhaps it's also worth noting that the prescribed salute to the flag was originally an extended arm, hand out, and palm upward, not unlike the Nazi salute.

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This similarity in stance to the German counterpart -- and of course, the compulsory nature of the exercise -- raised concerns over the appearance of the pledge, so in 1942 the salute was modified to the hand-over-heart pose we recognize today.

But a new salute doesn't hide the old fears and prejudices that helped shape the pledge of allegiance, nor does it make a compulsory affirmation of liberty any less ironic. Perhaps unsurprisingly, as immigration moves to the forefront of the national debate and we face the possibility that millions of undocumented immigrants could soon become American citizens, calls for making the pledge of allegiance mandatory have recently surfaced Michigan and Nebraska, two of the few remaining states without laws requiring the pledge.

While there is hope in the upcoming Massachusetts case, parents don't have to wait for the courts or lawmakers. Instead, they can take a pledge of their own: that they will no longer condone this daily exercise in nationalistic indoctrination and religious inculcation. That's what my wife and I have done--we strongly encourage our two young children to abstain from any part of the pledge of allegiance. It's not easy. They are the only ones in their classes who don't participate, and I know it has made them uncomfortable. But as they begin to understand that thinking for themselves is the true embodiment of liberty, I am hopeful that they will arrive at a patriotism that is honest and critical, not one that has been foisted upon them.