My son, now 5 years old, was chosen to lead his school in reciting the Pledge of Allegiance. As an atheist and a parent, I have mixed feelings about this—especially when he asked me what "under God" means. Why I let him do it despite my misgivings, and how to use the Pledge as a teaching moment in secular parenting philosophy.
[A transcript of my new episode on OnlySky’s podcast, Human Story, for those who prefer reading to listening]
As a parent, I have to brag: My son was selected to lead his whole school in reciting the Pledge of Allegiance!
Oh. My son was selected to lead his whole school in reciting the Pledge of Allegiance.
Let’s back up. This needs some unpacking.
My son is 5. He’s bright, verbal and effervescently curious. He bubbles over with questions about the world; he wants to know everything. He has a stubborn streak, but he’s sweet at heart and capable of surprising insights of empathy. And, if I’m being honest, he’s a lot more outgoing than I was at his age. I was a painfully shy child, but he’s fearless.
My wife, Elizabeth, and I agree on what we’re teaching him about religion. We want him to learn that it’s good to question authority and to be skeptical, so we won’t indoctrinate him with any set of beliefs, not even our own. Instead, we’re teaching him as best as we can about the diversity of the world’s religions—Judaism, Christianity, Buddhism and the rest, about the ancient Greek myths, and about atheism as well.
We’ve told him that different people have different beliefs, and it’s okay to make up your own mind. We said that how you treat people matters more than what you believe. As far as I know, he hasn’t formed any definite beliefs of his own—although he did ask me once if God was like a fairy.
My son started kindergarten at our neighborhood public school last September. A really good school. After the isolation of COVID-19, it was a welcome return to normalcy. He’s thriving there. He has good days and difficult days, but on the whole, more good ones.
When we picked him up from school one day, he told us that his teacher wanted to give him a special reward for good behavior. She had nominated him to lead his whole elementary school in reciting the Pledge of Allegiance over the loudspeaker.
I had some complicated feelings about this.
One nation… indivisible?
The original wording of the Pledge had no theistic language. It was “one nation indivisible.” The phrase “under God” was added in the 1950s, during the Red Scare, to distinguish us from those godless commies. But if America is truly “one nation under God,” this must mean that atheists aren’t true Americans. It must mean that our patriotism is deficient in some way, or that our loyalty to the country is suspect, or under false pretenses.
That’s not a message I want to send my son.
But he got this as a reward, and he seemed to be looking forward to doing it. I didn’t want to be the cranky, killjoy atheist, pulling him away from anything that even smacks of religion, as if I’m allergic. I said I wanted him to have the space to make up his own mind, and this felt like a test of whether I was serious about that. If he was excited to do this, who am I to take it away from him?
To prepare for his big day, I had him practice saying the Pledge at home. I don’t want him to recite words he doesn’t understand, so I asked him if he knew what “allegiance” meant. He said no. I told him that it was like a promise that you’ll always help or support someone, a person or a country.
I asked him if there were any other parts of the Pledge he didn’t understand.
Then he asked me, “What does ‘under God’ mean?”
Freeze frame. Let’s back up a little more.
Like America itself, the Pledge’s history is a mix of our best and worst impulses. It came about during the 19th century, an era of mass immigration, when the nation was grappling with questions of identity and what it meant to be American.
The idea for a national pledge of allegiance was the brainchild of Daniel Sharp Ford, the editor of a magazine called The Youth’s Companion. He was looking for ways to increase sales, and he hit on the idea of giving away flags to public schools as a patriotic promotional gimmick. He thought that having schoolchildren begin each day by pledging allegiance to the flag would be a good way to create demand for those flags.
I’m not kidding. The Pledge of Allegiance exists because of a magazine’s marketing campaign. Imagine the Declaration of Independence being sponsored by a tea company trying to take market share from British competitors.
The Pledge itself, or rather its original non-theistic wording, was written for the magazine by a man named Francis Bellamy. Bellamy was a Baptist minister, but he was also a socialist who championed workers’ rights. He was kicked out of at least one pulpit for preaching against capitalism. The pledge he came up with, which, again, didn’t include the phrase “under God”, was first published in 1892, as part of a celebration of the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ landing in the Western Hemisphere.
I love the irony of this. It’s a high-minded appeal to patriotism and national unity, invented as cover for a capitalist marketing campaign, conceived of by a socialist, and rolled out to commemorate a date in history that kicked off a wave of brutal colonialism. It sums up all the contradictions that make America what it is.
The Pledge is weird
The Pledge is a thoroughly American custom. Most countries don’t have anything like it. It’s a weird ritual. It’s one thing to swear special oaths when you become a citizen, or join the military, or assume public office, or take the witness stand in court. In those cases, it’s confirmation that you understand the responsibility you’re taking on. But why is it necessary for an ordinary citizen to reaffirm their patriotism at the beginning of a sports game or a school board meeting? What are we trying to prove, and to who?
It’s especially weird that we expect children to swear this oath. We don’t expect kids to make other lifelong commitments. We don’t allow them to buy a house or sign a contract or enter into marriage. Do we really think they’re capable of making a reasoned comparison of all the countries in the world, their economies and their culture and the relative merits of their differing governmental systems, and decide that the United States is the one that most deserves their allegiance?
And if that’s not what we’re asking them to do, what exactly is the point of the Pledge? Is it really just a set of words you’re supposed to memorize and recite without thinking too hard about what it means? Is the point to instill a sense of unreasoning devotion to America, land of the free, home of the brave, my country right or wrong, if you don’t like it, move to China? Is the Pledge the civic version of a religious creed—something you’re not supposed to question or examine critically, just something you’re supposed to accept?
That brings me back to the religious elements. The phrase “under God” can’t be anything but exclusionary. It was supposed to be. It was meant to delineate a value that Americans held in common but our biggest rival at the time didn’t.
But, of course, not all Americans do hold that value in common.
Even if you take it to be a reference to the watered-down, indistinct higher power of ceremonial deism, this is a firm statement that one god exists and that he favors America. It gives atheists and agnostics the unenviable choice of either staying silent, potentially making ourselves stand out from the crowd in an unwelcome way, or making hypocrites of ourselves by reciting words we don’t believe. And when it’s not us who are being nudged to say it, but our kids, it becomes even more galling. It’s the opposite of the think-for-yourself message I want to teach my son.
If the Pledge was intended to be indoctrination, it’s not very effective indoctrination. I don’t think it’s going to brainwash my son against my wishes. I said it all through public school, and, well, look at me now.
Of course, that was before I became an atheist. Through my childhood and teenage years, my beliefs could best be described as vague deism. I believed that there was probably a god of some sort, and he didn’t answer prayers or perform miracles, but he’d see to it that everything would turn out well in the end. The Pledge fit well into that mindset. For me, it was just as I described it: a set of memorized words to be recited mindlessly, an activity as mundane and beneath notice as tying your shoelaces.
It was only later, after my deconversion epiphany, that I found out “under God” was a later addition. And when I knew about the history that led up to them, those mundane words no longer seemed so beneath notice. What once struck me as dull and innocuous became more significant, even sinister, after I’d learned that it was the scar of a battle over separation of church and state.
In 2000, an atheist named Michael Newdow filed a lawsuit over the constitutionality of the Pledge. This was seen as a quixotic effort, unlikely to go anywhere. But Newdow won a shock victory in a federal appeals court, which ruled that the Pledge was indeed unconstitutional. When the case was appealed to the Supreme Court, Newdow scored a second coup, getting Antonin Scalia to recuse himself because he had unwisely voiced an opinion about it before hearing the arguments.
In the end, the Supreme Court ducked the issue. They reversed Newdow’s victory on a technicality of standing, intentionally avoiding the question of whether the Pledge is constitutional. No subsequent challenge has gotten this far, and for the moment, the Pledge of Allegiance sits uneasily side-by-side with America’s officially secular government and its godless Constitution.
The Supreme Court ruled in 1943, in the famous case of West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette, that recitation of the Pledge is supposed to be strictly voluntary. The opinion is remembered for the famous line, “If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein.”
But as a recent court win by American Atheists reminded us, there are still teachers and schools who haven’t gotten the message and who gladly use the Pledge as a cudgel to beat nonbelievers and nonconformists.
No ideological bubble wrap
That was all the context I wanted to give my son, but he’s still too young to understand most of it. So, when he asked me, “what does ‘under God’ mean?”, I had to think fast. What I said was, “Some people believe that God cares about the United States and gives the country special help.”
That seemed to satisfy his curiosity for the moment. Soon, with the hummingbird-like attention span of a five-year-old, he was on to the next topic, asking me about dinosaurs or robots or whatever his interest of the moment is.
When the big day came, it was anticlimactic. He recited the Pledge over the loudspeaker, and it went well. I asked him if he got all the words right, and he said yes. He didn’t see it as a big deal, just one thing that happened in his day, and that’s how I wanted it. I knew that treating something as dangerous, off-limits, or forbidden is a sure way to make kids more curious. For that matter, it’s a sure way to make humans in general more curious.
I’m proud of him for earning this privilege, and I don’t regret letting him do it. But I know I need to have more talks with him, and soon. He’s starting to absorb information through cultural osmosis, including some ideas that I dislike or disagree with.
I can’t stop that from happening, and I wouldn’t if I could. It’s a critical step in him becoming his own person, creating an identity for himself separate from his parents. Our job as parents isn’t to keep our kids sheltered from the world, it’s to prepare them to deal with whatever they encounter, and that includes facts that are difficult, inconvenient or troublesome. Even if some religious parents feel otherwise and try to swaddle their kids in ideological bubble wrap, I won’t. In fact, I think it’s especially important to teach him about ideas I disagree with, so that when he comes across them, it won’t be an unwelcome surprise.
I plan to tell him that, according to the Constitution, America is a secular country, which means everyone has the right to choose for themselves whether to believe in God or whether to join a religion. The people who founded our country saw the bad things that happen when the government tries to force everyone to believe the same thing, so they tried to make sure that would never happen here.
But if America is a secular country, why do we have this very much not secular pledge? That’s a question I’m hoping he’ll ask. It’s like a keyhole, opening the door to the contradictions in our history that I want him to learn about.
Even here in the U.S., there are people who want to force everyone to believe the same thing, and when enough good people don’t stand up to oppose them, sometimes they win. The Pledge of Allegiance is an ideal example of that. It shows that progress isn’t something we achieve once and for all time, but an ongoing struggle to build a better world. If I had to choose just one lesson to teach my son, that’s the one I most want him to appreciate.