“God” and the Borders of Belonging

“God” and the Borders of Belonging October 19, 2014

Several weeks ago, five-year-old Sally spent a great deal of time making something for her teacher and then left it at home on accident. When I noticed she had left it, I took it to the school to give it to her. The busses had only just dropped the children off, and when I reached Sally’s classroom students were still coming in, putting their lunch containers on the shelf and taking off their jackets. As I left the school after giving Sally the gift she had made, the school’s intercom came on and the principal welcomed the students—and then led them in the Pledge of Allegiance.

I pledge allegiance to the Flag of the United States of America, and to the Republic for which it stands, one Nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.

I don’t have occasion to hear the Pledge of Allegiance very often, but when I do the words “under God” hit me in the gut. I realize that those two words may seem like a little thing, but to me those words suggest that I, as an atheist, don’t belong. Those two little words circumscribe the community, creating a society where those who believe in God—any God—may come together while I, who do not believe in God, am shut out.

National pledges are supposed to unite a people, to bring them together as one. And I suppose, in a way, that our pledge does that—but it does that by creating a boundary, and I am on the outside. All those peoples who believe in God, whatever God, are united and brought together at the expense of those who don’t. Does creating group cohesion require creating an “other” to contrast the group against? Does creating a sense of belonging require creating a boundary to delineate between those who belong and those who do not?

Perhaps some will say I am making too big of a deal out of two little words. But if this is so, why not just remove them? And if keeping those two words is so important and removal unthinkable, well, I’d suggest I’m not misreading the situation or making too much out of something little.

I recently went with Sally to her first Girl Scouts meeting. I wasn’t in Girl Scouts when I was a girl—my parents felt the organization’s goals and associations conflicted with their evangelical religious beliefs—but I’ve heard that they are inclusive, and that unlike the Boy Scouts, they are open to all religious faiths and lack thereof. So I really wasn’t expecting what I heard when the leader led the girls in the Girl Scout Promise:

On my honor, I will try:
To serve God and my country,
To help people at all times,
And to live by the Girl Scout Law.

Again, there it was, in the gut. It was like my stomach dropped out. It is hard enough to feel othered, but this time I wasn’t expecting it. I know, I know, if I’d done my research it wouldn’t have taken me by surprise, and I do understand that the Girl Scouts, like the Boy Scouts, originated in a time that was much less inclusive. I get that. But would it be so hard for an organization promoting its inclusiveness to back that up by ensuring that the Girl Scout Promise, the first thing the girls are taught when they become Girl Scouts, is itself inclusive? It’s not like they haven’t changed the it before.

Now yes, I could go to the administration or school board and ask that they stop saying the Pledge of Allegiance each day (plenty of schools don’t, after all, it’s not like it’s mandated). I could also find a way to petition the Girl Scouts to change the Girl Scout Promise to be more inclusive, or I could at least talk to Sally’s troupe leader about it. But the thing is, my daughter is not bothered by either. Unlike me, Sally is not an atheist.

How is it that my husband Sean and I are both atheists, but Sally is not? Over time I’ve realized that if I want to raise Sally with the freedom I was denied as a child, I have to let her choose her own beliefs. I can’t tell her what to believe. If I set about to raise an atheist, how would I be different from my parents, who set about to raise an evangelical Christian? I want Sally to form her own beliefs for herself, not for me or anyone else. We attend our local Unitarian Universalist church because I want Sally to be exposed to a variety of religious beliefs (and lack thereof) and be allowed to explore and decide for herself what she believes. I don’t hide my lack of belief from Sally, but I don’t push it on her either.

After we left the Girl Scouts meeting, I was curious. I wondered if Sally’s beliefs had changed at all from the last time we had discussed religion some months before. The wonderful thing about raising a child without expectations relating to religion is that we can have these conversations openly and without any sort of weirdness. That she could be judged or shut down for what she says to me about God or her beliefs is foreign to Sally.

“Sally, do you believe in a God?” I asked her.

“Yes,” Sally replied.

“Which God?” I asked.

“I believe in Jesus,” she said. “And Zeus, and Hades.”

And that pretty much led into a litany of the Greek and Roman gods. This did answer my question, though—Sally’s beliefs haven’t changed since the last time we discussed the topic. She gave the same answer then. Sally is not an atheist, and in fact some time back she was horrified to learn that I didn’t believe in a God, and insisted that I had to believe in some God—any God, she said, I could take my pick! I used that conversation as an opportunity to assure that people don’t have to believe in a God, and that some people (myself included) don’t believe in a God, and that people’s beliefs on the subject vary a great deal, and that’s okay.

While I feel othered by the Pledge of the Allegiance and the Girl Scout Promise, my daughter is not me. My parents pushed my siblings and I into politics early, for some reason thinking that our youth made us especially convincing and persuasive (it didn’t—we were simply repeating our parents’ views and I suspect we looked very naive). I spent my youth fighting my parents’ battles, from abortion to gay marriage. I refuse to do that to my children. I will fight my own battles.

Some time ago I read about Ellery Schempp, one of the children at the center of Abington v. Schempp, the 1963 Supreme Court case that struck down school prayer and Bible reading in the public schools. I remember being incredibly impressed at not only how Ellery went about things but also by his father. When Ellery was 16, he came to feel very strongly that his school’s practice of having the Bible read aloud during homeroom each day was unconstitutional. He staged a protest himself and contacted the ACLU. Through all of this his father supported him, but let him keep the driver’s seat. When an attorney from the ACLU came to their home to talk about starting a case, Ellery’s father left the room so that Ellery and his siblings could speak with the attorney alone, so that whatever they decided would be their decision, not his.

I aspire to be like Ellery’s father. If Sally felt othered or excluded by her school’s daily recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance, I would go to the administration, and then the school board, and ask them to change their policy. If Sally felt othered or excluded by the Girl Scout Promise, I would write to the national Girl Scouts and also speak with her local troupe leader to see what could be done. I would ask Sally what she wanted to do about it, and back her up. I would be Sally’s advocate, supporter, and champion. But Sally is not bothered.

I’ve mentioned Sally’s relatively eclectic beliefs before, and I’ve had commenters suggest that I’m okay with Sally believing in a God because she believes in a variety of gods, and that if she only believed in the God of Christianity I would not be okay with it. I disagree. Yes, I realize that Sally’s belief in Zeus and Hades and all the rest could make it easy to think of her views as a phase (although it’s worth mentioning that there are those who do actually believe in those gods), and I do think it likely that Sally’s beliefs will change over time as she grows. At the moment, I’m not even completely sure how she defines the term “god.” But I really honestly and truly am okay with her forming her own beliefs. To be otherwise would be to be a hypocrite.

I am not a Girl Scout, but I’d like to think that maybe at some point in the future the organization will change its Girl Scouts Promise. The Girl Scouts has made efforts to be inclusive in a variety of ways, and they have to know that the wording of their promise excludes girls who are not religious (along with girls who are pagan, or whose religious beliefs do not involve serving a deity). Perhaps a Girl Scout who feels excluded by the wording will find a way to get it changed, hopefully with the support of her parents.

As for the Pledge of Allegiance, I have little hope of seeing that changed any time soon—even though the words “under God” were themselves a change, passed in 1954 at the height of the Cold War. If the pledge is to be changed, I would prefer it to be changed by the vote of the people. If the words were removed by a Supreme Court decision, the uproar and anger of the majority of Americans that I am sure would ensue would reinforce my outsider status, at least on a gut level. I would like to imagine that we as a country can reach a point where “God” does not play a role in our borders of belonging.

And maybe, someday, we can.

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