An Assembly of Pieces

James Anderson Merritt's piecemeal thoughts and observations, and the occasional attempt to put some of the pieces together.
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All material except cited quotations Copyright (C) 2004-2008 by James Anderson Merritt. All rights reserved.
Sunday, June 30, 2002

The Honorable Alfred Goodwin of the Ninth Circuit US Court of Appeals has declared unconstitutional a requirement that schoolchildren say the "Pledge of Allegiance," because the words "under God" are seen as "respecting an establishment of religion," or "prohibiting the free exercise thereof" (depending on your point of view). Either way, Judge Goodwin clearly felt that the pledge requirement violated the First Amendment to the US Constitution. Simply, he said, the government should not force people -- even (and especially) young people -- to speak words that enshrine monotheism.

The decision has sparked a predictable reaction across the country. Americans who describe themselves as "patriotic" are shocked, shocked -- and outraged. Protest demonstrations have been held, letters to the editor have been written, withering, defiant criticism of Goodwin and the Ninth Circuit has gone into the Congressional Record, and any number of groups (including bodies of Congress) have arranged public pledge sessions, where all their members stand to say the full pledge, pointedly emphasizing the words "under God."

Samuel Johnson was surely not the first to recognize that "patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel," but he is credited with that proverb, meaning that we have understood the important truth he wrote for several hundred years, at least. I have no doubt that many who are organizing or participating in the "pledge-ins," and who loudly decry the appellate court ruling as "dastardly" and "unamerican," are doing so to divert attention from their own scoundrelhood. Others may actually love this country -- and God -- deeply and sincerely, but they appear to miss some important points about freedom of speech: You should be able to say what's on your mind and in your heart. You should not be forced to say something that is not in your mind or heart. How can we teach these values of free speech to our children, if we can't bring ourselves to observe them scrupulously in our schools? Kids are quick to recognize inconsistency, injustice, and hypocrisy. How can a requirement to pledge fidelity, like it or not, "under God" or not, be seen by them as anything else?

I have a hard time requiring children to recite a loyalty oath. I don't think they can really understand what they are saying. I thought of myself as fairly aware when I was in elementary school. I certainly understood the surface meaning of the pledge, and could say it convincingly in two languages, English and Spanish. But I didn't really understand it in my gut, in my heart, until many more years had passed, during which I matured and came to appreciate both the ideals we profess as a nation, and the difficulty we have always had -- and continue to have -- in living up to those ideals. I think it is good for children to learn the pledge as early as possible, just like a nursery rhyme, so that they will be able to contemplate its true meaning anytime, anywhere, in the years to come.

Forcing people to recite political or religious passages uncritically, however, is a tactic of mind-control. When mullahs use it on tiny children, it is often to turn them into walking bomb delivery vehicles, a practice I think we rightly abhor. But when we use it, we say we are promoting "freedom." How is that, exactly? Freedom requires the exercise of free will. Until children can truly understand what they are saying, its implications and consequences, and can say it from the heart, with no hesitation or reservations, any recitation must be meaningless. A forced recitation is even worse; it is tyranny. I felt that way when I was in sixth grade. I feel that way now. I know I was never alone in those feelings.

For a brief history of the pledge, I turned to my copy of the World Almanac and Book of Facts (St. Martin's Press, 2001). For 116 years, we had no official pledge at all. The original pledge, first published in 1892 (and written by Francis Bellamy, ironically enough, a socialist who had ill feelings toward churches he had attended!), was established for at least two full generations -- 62 years -- before an Act of Congress amended it in 1954, to add the words, "under God." The pledge in its current form has been established for just 48 years, hardly the hallowed tradition that pledge boosters imply. Simply put, the longest tradition in this country is to have no pledge (fully consistent with the principle of freedom of speech, as in, freedom not to speak) and the second longest is to have a pledge that does not include "under God" (fully consistent with the principle of freedom of religion, as in, freedom not to be forced to participate in your neighbor's religious observances, or to have any personal religion at all).

Frankly, I don't think that defenders of the pledge have much of a case. I think that they should be glad that Judge Goodwin decided the case. I would have struck down mandatory loyalty oaths, period. Instead of staying the order, as Goodwin did, I might have compromised to allow prescribed recitation of the pledge, omitting the words, "under God," as long as individual students weren't required to say anything during the exercise, or could say something else, of their own choosing.

Remember what Samuel Johnson said about patriotism and scoundrels? I find it very interesting that the uproar over the appellate court's "pledge ruling" drove the US Supreme court's ruling concerning mandatory student drug testing from the front pages. It is hard for me to see that decision as anything but the act of scoundrels, or at least the profoundly misguided -- now conveniently receiving cover from the patriotic smokescreen surrounding the "pledge" controversy. Am I to understand that we think that we will put some patriotic love of freedom into kids because we force them to mumble some words once a day, while we simultaneously force them to urinate in a cup, potentially bearing witness against themselves after their privacy has been well and thoroughly invaded? I am amazed (but not shocked, shocked!) to find those who excoriate Judge Goodwin for his "unpatriotic" ruling on the pledge, are strangely silent when it comes to mandatory, random, warrantless drug testing of our schoolchildren without probable cause. As I see it, this clear violation of the Fourth and Fifth Amendments, now given official sanction by the highest court in the land, is a far bigger danger to our republic than even the outright elimination of the Pledge of Allegiance from our schools ever could be. How can our children possibly respect a country that will talk freedom's talk but not walk the walk? How can they possibly understand what real freedom is, that they might preserve and defend it when their turn comes?

To paraphrase the familiar saying from the Holocaust period, "First they came for the students, and I did not stand up, for I was not a student." We all need to study hard on this one.


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