In a 179-20 landslide vote, the Pennsylvania House of Representatives just passed a bill to display “In God We Trust” in public schools (pending final approval), I think it might be a good time to take a look at the social, political, and religious perspectives of that ushered such mottoes America’s consciousness in the 1950’s. (The same era that “Under God” was added to the Pledge of Allegiance.)
I recently got into a friendly argument with two old friends (from relatively sheltered towns in Oklahoma and Idaho) who were both very upset by a lawsuit in New Jersey that was challenging the “under God” addition be taken back out of the pledge of allegiance when recited in a public school setting. For them, it was all about a “traditional pledge of a Christian nation” and that atheists were “forcing their beliefs onto the world”.
Even in my days of full-time ministry, I always felt deeply that the addition of “under God” to the original Pledge of Allegiance was a much more complex issue than many of my fellow Christians were willing to admit – the very sort of theocratic forced-conformity that caused the puritans to leave England in order to seek true religious freedoms in the first place – out from under the thumb of the king and the authority given to the Church of England. (Oh, the irony.) As such, I welcomed the opportunity for a very interesting dialogue about how many “baby boomer” Americans (and younger) who live in predominantly Christian communities may have lost sight of the history, legality, and cultural importance of the issue in this melting pot of freedom that we call The United States of America.
So, I decided to take my friends on a little journey of sorts – encouraging them to imagine how many kids in that New Jersey school may be Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim, Jewish, Scientologists, or – Lord forbid, agnostic or atheist. I challenged them to think outside of their own communities to remember that New Jersey is much more of a cultural melting pot than their hometowns. I asked them to imagine the circumstances under which many of those families may have recently fled countries with mandated state-sponsored religion. I asked them to imagine fleeing Iran to the “Land of the Free,” only to be told that their children were required to pledge their allegiance to their new country UNDER GOD?!?! (No, really – please take just a moment to think this, critically.)
The case in New Jersey is NOT about taking “under God” out of the pledge, it is about taking “under God” BACK out… Both of my friends are of a generation that is under the impression that “under God” was just always part of the pledge, not realizing that it was added in 1954 by President Eisenhower (who had been baptized as a born-again Christian just a year earlier) in the midst of the Cold War, as a way to distinguish “god loving” American against the “godless commies” around the world… Talk about “forcing beliefs”? Now, what if the President had been Muslim, Hindu, or Buddhist?
KEEPING TRACK: I would suggest that the New Jersey lawsuit wasn’t about forcing atheist beliefs on anyone, but about trying to protect kids from being ostracized for refusing to publicly accept the presence of the “majority god’s” watchful eye over their school and country. (aka, Having someone else’s beliefs forced on their own children)…
Many proponents of the “under God” Cold War addition might argue, “Fine, then just don’t have your kid say, ‘under God’ if you don’t like it!” Unfortunately, it is not as simple as instructing dissenting students to silently omit the phrase in class without prejudice, while others chant, “under God.” In many communities, in many classrooms, this silence would be tipping your hat to a different belief system, forcing children (or adults) to publicly “out” themselves as going against the status quo – an outsider, one who should be shunned and shamed according the Bible. Let’s take another look at the verses I chose for this illustration:
“I beg you, keep track of those who cause dissent from the teaching you have learned. Avoid them!” – Romans 16:172
“In the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, we command you to keep away from those who are idle, not living within the traditions you have been taught… Take special note of anyone who does not obey this instruction and shun them so that they will be ashamed!” – Thessalonians 3:6,14
Is it really that difficult to imagine a public school teacher, who happens to be a Christian, subconsciously (or even very consciously) keeping track of which students come from Christian homes? (Remember, “under God” was specifically added to the pledge at a time of list-making paranoia, looking for ways to distinguish “us” from “them”.) Don’t think for a moment that the Christian children (and teachers) aren’t aware of the “oddballs” who refuse to finish the pledge along with the rest of the class.
Being forced to “choose sides” every morning simply requires kids to lie – giving into peer pressure of “the norm” in order to avoid opening themselves to teasing, ridicule, and prejudicial treatment. It is one thing for an grown adult immigrant to omit a phrase during their citizenship ceremony, it is quite another to have teachers of math also
teaching subtly indoctrinating… religion. I have known very few grade schoolers that would be equipped to stand against the group mentally, nor should they ever be put in a position to do so. Instead, they just give-in to subtle indoctrination as they just accept the cultural norm of American Christianity. “Conform, we are watching – One Nation Under God, In God We Trust, God Bless America, God Bless Our Troops!!!” When mixed with (and mistaken for) chest-beating nationalism, this type of religious rhetoric is dangerous and demeaning to the very foundation of freedoms upon which this country was founded. (While this may feel like a “reach” to many readers, is it really that different from an outsider’s perspective than hearing any Muslim in any Middle East country shouting out, “Allahu Akbar” – all tied to their sense of national/cultural heritage and pride?)
The flip question would be, how would you feel if your kids were forced to say “Under Vishnu” or “Under Allah” at the end of the pledge? What if the plaques above the door read, “In Buddha We Trust” or, “In Shiva We Trust”? Isn’t it amazing how one word changes… everything?
NOT TO MENTION: How many non-believing teachers are even allowed to omit “under God” as they lead their classes in the pledge each morning? Can you imagine the outrage from “real American” (Christian) parents? (In all of the classrooms my kids have been in – this would have sparked a MAJOR controversy.)
IRONY: As far as “forcing their beliefs onto the world,” I don’t remember the last time an atheist knocked on my door, preached from street corners, had entire church outreach departments, set up tv and radio stations, or launched multi-million dollar organizations to send missionaries around the world to “force” their rejection of beliefs in the supernatural on anyone… The irony of my friend’s earlier remarks just gives me a little giggle. (I should mention; this giggle is coming from a man who used to be a leader of a large international evangelism ministry.)
Yes, yes – I write books and run a popular Facebook page that invite people to think critically about the Bible. However, this at-will, on-demand content doesn’t force anybody to do anything. My point is simply this – let’s not forget why this country was founded in the first place: freedom.
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Remember: Don’t blame us, it’s in the Bible! This illustration and (slightly different) commentary can be found in our second book:
Awkward Moments (Not Found In Your Average) Children’s Bible – Vol #2.