Classroom karaoke

If California schools keep the words "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance, there will be kids like I was, who will remain silent, move their lips and hope that patriotic peers don't catch them.

By Susan McCarthy

Published September 6, 2002 7:28PM (EDT)

As public schools open across the West, school districts face the question of what to do about the Pledge of Allegiance. Many kids, depending on those decisions, will face the question of what to say. In June, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled that children could not be made to say the pledge in its current form because it includes the words "under God." But the phrase -- inserted by Congress in 1954 in a fit of collective self-righteousness -- has created conflict for students for much longer.

At this point, because the Ninth Circuit decision is under appeal, schools are free to instruct kids to recite the God-enhanced version of the pledge. Recalling my own schooldays, when those words created a painful moment every day, I hope they don't.

The ostensible cause of the pledge suit is a third-grader, the daughter of Michael Newdow and Sandra Banning. Newdow, an atheist who lives in Sacramento, Calif., filed suit arguing that his daughter should not be forced to watch and take part in a ritual including mention of God, and the majority of the court agreed.

This decision, as might be expected in these times, caused a huge flap, and afforded certain congressman the chance to summon cameras to view them reciting the pledge -- including "under God" -- and singing "God Bless America" on the Capitol steps. Had someone handed them flags, I am sure they would have wrapped themselves in them.

I'm an atheist, and I was particularly distressed by the part of the furor which involved public figures across the land proudly renouncing atheism and vowing to combat their oppression by atheists. But the last straw for me, the one that made me feel I'd kept my heathen mouth shut long enough, was an editorial cartoon showing Newdow's daughter being crucified on an international "no" symbol by her callous atheistic father.

This display came on the heels of the child's mother, Sandra Banning, announcing to the press that her daughter is not an atheist, that she does not want people to think that her daughter is an atheist, and that she doesn't want her daughter to be a party to the suit. (The parents, unsurprisingly, have not been a couple for some time.)

Banning's lawyer also says that Banning doesn't want her child to be "branded for the rest of her life as the girl who was the atheist in the pledge case."

It's not clear that Newdow's lawsuit hinges on his daughter's being an atheist who does not wish to utter words of religious faith in the course of pledging allegiance to her country. Newdow has spoken of his right to guide his child's religious education (although now that the mother says she has full custody, it's unclear whether he indeed has that right), a statement which gives no hint of the child's beliefs.

Perhaps it is true that, in this case, the father's lawsuit misrepresents the convictions of the child. Perhaps the high point of her day is the chance to intone the words "under God" as part of the pledge. And I can certainly believe that being known as a party in her father's lawsuit could create social agony for the girl. If I could, I would gladly put my younger self forward as a suitable plaintiff, because saying those words did indeed make me unhappy.

I've always been an atheist. I'm a third-generation atheist on one side of my family, second-generation on the other. When I was 6 or 7, a family friend gave me a book of Bible stories, which I liked (my favorite was the story of Moses and Aaron), but which didn't make me a believer. When I asked my parents about God, they said that was a matter of personal conviction, and I could decide for myself when I got older. I was a serious, precocious child, and I didn't wait to decide -- but my beliefs haven't been shaken with time.

Very early soon after my decision, I became aware that the matter of personal conviction was not a simple thing. One day after school, when we were both in the first grade, I casually remarked to my friend Amy that there was no Santa Claus and no God. Amy told her parents in distress, and they called my parents in outrage. Somehow my genius of a mother smoothed things over so that Amy was still allowed to play with me, but it was apparently a close call. My mother had a talk with me about respecting the beliefs of others, and it made a deep impression.

The next time we played together, Amy told me that while I had a point about Santa, I was mistaken about God. I don't remember exactly what I said, but it was on the order of, "I'm sure you're right. Let's go play in the tree fort."

At the Massachusetts school I went to, we didn't say the pledge, but when we moved to California, it was a daily ritual. When we recited the pledge, I didn't say "under God," because I didn't believe it. I was a conscientious child, and I didn't want to lie. But I was afraid that people wouldn't like it if I didn't say it, or would tease me if they noticed that I didn't say it, so I moved my lips during that phrase, but did not speak it. This was not my parents' idea. I don't think I told them about it, and in any case they were always urging me not to be so timid about things.

I have been told that my fear was not a rational one, and that other kids in other places either conspicuously did not say "under God," or substituted all kinds of hilarious phrases, and that nothing bad happened to them. No one forced me to cower before a hypothetical threat.

But it so happens that between first and second grades I entered what it would be tactful to call an awkward phase, and I think I was correct that in my status as a spindly bespectacled dwarf who talked funny, any new deviation from the norm could have directed additional teasing my way. Moving from one school to another didn't help. I was teased for the way I looked, the way I dressed, the way my parents looked, the fact that we ate dinner late, even -- this was in a California suburb -- for having dark hair. What I already underwent was bad enough without being exposed as a person whose morality was so questionable that other children might need to be sequestered from my company.

If my fears were indeed unreasonable at the time, perhaps they are becoming less so. Perhaps the danger of being exposed as a pledge heathen has been heightened. In the main part of their decision, the appeals court judges wrote that the insertion of the words "under God" sends the message that atheists are outsiders. And Sandra Banning's desire that everyone know that her child is not an atheist after all would seem to confirm that.

I'd like to ask Banning: If it is so terrible for her daughter to be reputed to be an atheist, and if she must protect her child against that charge, what protection would she like to see for children who really are?

Atheist children aren't the only ones who may confront this issue. When the pledge decision came down, the San Francisco Chronicle interviewed the Rev. Masao Kodani of the Sensai Buddhist Temple, who said that Buddhists don't believe in God, and that he tells children in the temple's dharma classes that they should say the pledge in school but be silent for the "under God" part. Brave children, if they do.

One of my children is a practicing Jew who nevertheless doesn't believe that those words belong in the pledge. The other one, also an atheist, but not as fearful a child as I was, has never been bothered by the religious phrase in the pledge, but asks "What good is it?"

Indeed, what is the point? What do those two words accomplish? They certainly didn't convert me, but they taught me an inimical lesson about pretending to go along.

When I heard about the court's decision, I felt more worried than vindicated. I believe the decision is correct and I believe it will be overturned. I also think that because a majority of Americans believe those words should stay in the pledge, a rationale will be found. In the meantime, there will be a lot of hand-waving and posturing about God and country and about how you can't have the latter without the former, and a lot of people will say things that indicate just how incomprehensible, alien, amoral and untrustworthy they think people like me are.

I fear that some reasoning will be found to reaffirm the edict that all children in our public schools must daily link God and country aloud -- and a lot more people will be watching children's lips.

The Bush administration has now taken the amusing position that the words "under God" are, of all things, a "secular" reference to the nation's religious heritage. A history lesson, if you will.

That's not what President Eisenhower said in 1954 when he signed the law inserting the words into the pledge, which had been fine without them for the previous 62 years. He said it would proclaim "the dedication of our nation and our people to the almighty." A House committee report of the time said this would serve to "deny the atheistic and materialistic concepts of communism."

It is probably true that, as Boston Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby wrote, the founders of the American Republic didn't intend to create "a public square scrubbed free of God." Me neither. I think if we talked about religion more, in fact, there might be a wider understanding that this is not a subject on which we can assume unanimity. But talking about faith in God is not the same as forcing people to parrot words of faith they may or may not feel.

Jacoby also wrote that the health of our political institutions depends "on our ethics and religions." I'm with him on the ethics, but am alarmed by the notion that he may think we can't have ethics without religion. Religion is where some people locate the wellsprings of their ethics, but others find a different way. Does Jacoby find atheists like me unhealthy and unethical? The more such pronouncements I read, the more I wonder whether my childhood fears of being exposed as an unbeliever were really so irrational. Atheists aren't allowed to be Boy Scouts, for example, although admittedly I was already disqualified.

Surely no one believes that inserting the words "under God" in the pledge converts unbelievers or prevents backsliding. No, I think the real reason for the outrage at the thought of taking the words out is that most believers are furious that some people are offended by being instructed to utter the simplest, most basic tenet of their belief.

In a 1984 case, the Supreme Court ruled that the phrase "In God we trust" imprinted on our currency was not a problem because its significance has been lost through rote repetition. Not to me. I can read and I know what that means, and it means I'm not counted in the "we." Whatever. It's not like merchants force me to read my money aloud. If I were going to file a lawsuit, it wouldn't be about that.

Judge Ferdinand Fernandez of the Ninth Circuit wrote in his dissent to the pledge ruling that he didn't think the words "under God" were likely to bring about a theocracy. So? The Constitution doesn't say we should have separation of church and state only when it looks threatened by a theocracy. It says we should have separation of church and state. Laws aren't written to be ignored unless things get really bad.

Sandra Banning says that when she told her daughter (who, like a rape victim, goes unnamed in the media) that Newdow's suit could drag on for some time, the child replied "that it was OK because she will still whisper "one nation under God" and no one will hear her and know she is breaking the law. Of course it is not true that she would be "breaking the law," but it is a sad picture.

I'm sorry for the child because her parents are so antagonistic to each other, and I'm sorry for her because her unwanted status as a party in her father's lawsuit has probably made her the target of unwanted attention at school; but I'm not sorry for her if she wants all children to have to say the words she would like to say.

I'm sorry for her because I too have been a quiet child who felt pressure to say what others wanted me to say and not say the things they didn't like. I have been that child, and so I hope that none of the children in her class will be compelled to proclaim their religious views, or those of others, as part of the school day.

Susan McCarthy

Susan McCarthy is a San Francisco freelance writer and the author, with Jeffrey Masson, of "When Elephants Weep: The Emotional Lives of Animals."

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