Every year somebody or other finds a way to show that American kids are ignorant of history. The complaint isn't that they don't know the broad strokes, the rationale the South gave for keeping slaves, the ideas behind the New Deal. It's always dates and names, the game-show questions that ask what year the Civil War began and who ordered the bombing of Hiroshima, the stuff of the stand-up history bee. But if American adults want to give American kids a hard time about their dim knowledge of the past and how it's reflected in the present, they might first become reasonable role models on the subject. And the modeling could begin with the members of Congress, who with few exceptions went a little nuts when an appeals court in California ruled that the phrase "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance was unconstitutional.
I don't really know whether that is an impermissible breach of the firewall between church and state. The proper boundaries 'twixt secular and sacred have been argued long and hard by legal minds more steeped in the specific intricacies than my own. But I do know this: attempts to make the pledge sound like a cross between the Ten Commandments and the Constitution are laughable, foolish and evidence of the basest sort of political jingoism.
So let's go to the history books, as citizens of this country so seldom do. The Pledge of Allegiance started in 1892 as a set piece in a magazine, nothing more, nothing less. It was written by a man named Francis Bellamy in honor of Columbus Day, a holiday that scarcely exists anymore except in terms of department-store sales and parades. The words "under God" were nowhere in it, hardly surprising since Bellamy had been squeezed out of his own church the year before because of his socialist leanings. His granddaughter said he would have hated the addition of the words "under God" to a statement he envisioned uniting a country divided by race, class and, of course, religion.
Those two words went into the pledge nearly 50 years ago, and for the most deplorable reason. It was the height of the Red scare in America, when the lives of those aligned or merely flirting with the Communist Party were destroyed by paranoia, a twisted strain of uber-patriotism and the machinations of Sen. Joseph McCarthy, after whom an entire vein of baseless persecution is now named. Contrary to the current political argument that "under God" is not specifically devout, the push to put it in the pledge was mounted by the Knights of Columbus, a Roman Catholic men's organization, as an attempt to counter "godless communism." President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed a bill making this law, saying that the words would help us to "remain humble."
Humility had nothing to do with it. Americans are not a humble people. Instead the pledge had become yet another cold-war litmus test. The words "under God" were a way to indicate that America was better than other nations--we were, after all, under the direct protection of the deity--and adding them to the pledge was another way of excluding, of saying that believers were real Americans and skeptics were not. Would any member of Congress have been brave enough at that moment to say that a Pledge of Allegiance that had been good enough for decades was good enough as it stood?
Would any member of Congress, in the face of the current spate of unquestioning flag-waving, have been strong enough to eschew leaping to his feet and pressing his hand over his heart, especially knowing that the percentage of atheist voters is in the low single digits? Well, there were a few, a few who said the decision was likely to be overturned anyhow, a few who said there were surely more pressing matters before the nation, a few who were even willing to agree with the appeals court that "under God" probably did not belong in the pledge in a country founded on a righteous division between government and religion.
But most of the rest went wild. Even Sen. Hillary Clinton invoked "divine providence," even Sen. Dianne Feinstein called the court decision "embarrassing." What was embarrassing was watching all those people--Republicans, Democrats, liberals, conservatives--shout "under God" on the Senate floor, as though government were a pep rally and they were on the sanctified squad. Sen. Bob Smith of New Hampshire had this to say: "If you don't believe there's a God, that's your privilege, but it is still a nation under God." Huh?
I have a warm personal relationship with God; I often picture her smiling wryly and saying, in the words of Shakespeare's Puck, "Lord, what fools these mortals be!" Or perhaps something less fond. Now, as almost 50 years ago, a nation besieged by ideological enemies requires nuanced and judicious statecraft and instead settles for sloganeering, demonizing and politicking. One senator said after the court decision was handed down that the Founding Fathers must be spinning in their graves. The person who must be spinning is poor Francis Bellamy, who wanted to believe in an inclusive utopia and instead became in our time the father of convenient rhetoric.