A nation ‘under God,’ divided

Two small words. Two clashing views of liberty.

Forty-one years after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down school prayer, the classroom again is becoming a battleground over the phrase “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance.

Once again, Americans are squaring off over the meaning of the First Amendment as the high court prepares to decide whether to uphold a California appellate court ruling striking the religious reference from the oath.

One side wants the freedom to voice religion in school. The other wants a freedom from religion.

“I can’t say the words to you what I think about it because you can’t print them,” says Leo Pesta, 68, a Catholic, Army veteran and retired electrician living in Saginaw. “I feel real bad the Supreme Court would even think they might take the words out of there.”

Hands held over their hearts, about 60 million American students join in the daily ritual of the Pledge of Allegiance, reciting words as familiar as their ABCs.

While some view it as a simple oath, others see it as more.

“It’s like a prayer to God,” insists 8-year-old Dalton Parent, son of Drake Parent and Tamara Armstrong of Bridgeport Township and a third-grader at Schrah Elementary School in the Bridgeport-Spaulding School District.

That’s exactly why civil libertarians want to remove the phrase from the public classroom. They say the Constitution mandates a separation of church and state, and they argue the government has no business asking millions of impressionable children to pledge a reverence to a God whom they or their parents may not recognize.je

But many Americans believe an acknowledgment of a supreme being in the pledge — whether a Christian, Jewish or Muslim one — is as American as the flag and apple pie. They say taking an eraser to the time-honored tradition would strike a blow at the country’s core values.

They see it as an assault on religion that began with the high court striking down school prayer and continued with rulings banning organized prayers at football games and government-funded Nativity displays.

Last summer, the Alabama Supreme Court suspended Chief Justice Roy Moore after he refused to cart away his Ten Commandments monument from the court building.

With the high patriotic fervor in the country after 9/11, conservative talk show hosts and religious leaders have joined in a crusade for pledge purism.

“The public awareness of this case far outweighs the constitutional importance,” says Robert W. Lane, a Saginaw Valley State University professor of political science who teaches constitutional law. “It’s a symbolic emotional issue. It’s important because of the intensity people feel about it.”

God at head of class

Given the high emotions about the pledge, some are surprised that Congress introduced “under God” into the oath a mere 49 years ago — a year shy of when Elvis Presley hit the stage.

Proposed by the Knights of Columbus, a Catholic service organization, Congress adopted the clause partly to distinguish the nation from the “godless communists” of the Soviet Union.

“From this day forward, the millions of our school children will daily proclaim in every city and town … the dedication of our nation and our people to the Almighty,” President Dwight D. Eisenhower said.

As a fifth-grader in 1954, the Rev. Robert C. Quillin of the Seventh-Day Adventist Church, 2755 N. Center in Saginaw Township, wasn’t familiar with the lofty political reasoning for the change. At first, it didn’t quite roll off the tongue.

“When they first put it in, I thought, ‘That’s strange. It sounds funny,”‘ says Quillin, who supports keeping the phrase in the pledge. “I wasn’t quite used to saying it that way.”

Francis Bellamy, a Christian Socialist, wrote the pledge in 1892 as a way for public school children to honor the country and the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus arriving in America. The original oath pledged allegiance to “my flag,” but members of the National Flag Conference in 1924, concerned about which “flag” immigrants were honoring, changed it to “the Flag of the United States of America.”

Early in the 20th century, the pledge became a daily ritual for most elementary school children.

Wall of separation?

So what’s the big deal, some ask. Isn’t this a nation where the majority rules? And isn’t this a nation where the overwhelming majority are Christians, Jews and Muslims who believe in a God?

Why shouldn’t a widely shared religious belief remain part of a national oath?

Well, for starters, civil libertarians say, there are those 16 pesky words in the First Amendment of the Constitution: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

Lawyers and scholars long have debated what those words mean. The Constitution was a carefully crafted compromise between diverse communities in the northern and southern states, and scholars say it is unclear to what extent the founding fathers wanted to remove religion from the civil realm.

“Assessing the intent of the founding fathers is a very difficult thing to do, and it’s not a very desirable thing to do,” SVSU’s Lane says. “You’re talking about dozens and dozens of people. People don’t agree on religious and political matters. When you talk about the founding fathers, you can find support for anything you want.”

At the very least, Lane says, the founding fathers clearly wanted to prevent the nation from establishing a national religion, such as the Church of England. Many of their ancestors had come to the American shores to escape religious persecution in Europe, and the founding fathers wanted to ensure that Americans could worship as they see fit.

But did they intend for a complete “wall of separation” between church and state?

“The government, because of the First Amendment, should not engage itself in religious activities,” says Wendy Wagenheim, communications director of the Michigan chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union in Detroit. “We have more religion in this country because of the separation of church and state than despite it. The separation allows people to believe what they want, rather than people imposing their beliefs.”

Pledge purists argue religion has remained part of the public sphere since the country’s founding. Congress begins its sessions with prayer, and “In God We Trust” is a staple of our currency.

They note even the nation’s Declaration of Independence describes inalienable rights endowed by a “Creator.”

“I think it’s ironic that the Supreme Court will begin (its sessions) with prayer to determine whether ‘under God’ will stay in the pledge,” says the Rev. R.B. Ouellette of First Baptist Church of Bridgeport, 2400 King, who supports keeping the oath intact.

“The heartland, the rank and file American citizen, is reasonably open to spiritual things, but there are special interests who have made efforts to remove things of faith from the country.”

Compulsory education

Civil libertarians say they do not want to remove all religious references from the public sphere — only in areas where a person may feel compelled to adopt a religious sentiment.

Wagenheim says the public school classroom is a “captive audience” that may feel pressured into reciting the oath whenever it is broadcast over the intercom.

“I don’t believe anyone, at any age, should be forced to pledge allegiance to the government,” says Rob Hirschman, 40, a Christian and Libertarian who lives in Saginaw Township. “I have no problem with the respect that is intended for (the pledge), but when they tell me it is mandated, I have a problem with it.”

He suggests changing the words “under God” to “open to God,” meaning one is welcome in America whether religious or not

Officials of some area school systems say no children, in fact, are forced to say the pledge. Under a 1943 Supreme Court decision, the government can require no citizen to salute the flag.

MichealA. Tate, principal of Schrah Elementary, and Jerry L. Seese, superintendent of Saginaw Township Community Schools, say parents can request to exempt their children from saying the pledge.

Tate says four or five Schrah students who are Jehovah’s Witnesses remain silent during the recitation. Tate says he is aware of no taunting or pressure toward them from other students.

“That doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen someplace else,” Tate says, “but it hasn’t happened here.”

James Csiki, presiding minister of the Bridgeport congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses, says he is not aware of any students in his assembly harassed over the pledge.

“On occasion, you have a teacher with a problem with it because they just don’t understand,” Csiki says. “If the child feels intimidated, the parent, with a visit to the school, can defuse the situation with the teacher.”

While Jehovah’s Witnesses teach respect for the nation in which they live, Csiki says, members do not recite the pledge because they have a higher allegiance to God.

“To us, (the pledge) is an act of worship,” Csiki says. “We believe that the higher authority that transcends all national boundaries is God himself.”

The power of the pledge

Regardless of any pressure in the classroom, pledge purists say it teaches good core values and virtues, such as liberty and justice, to a new generation of Americans.

Few people get more misty-eyed about those values than Robert G. Heft, a Thomas Township resident and Lutheran who, at 17, designed the 50-star U.S. flag, winning a national contest.

“When we pledge to the flag, we’re not pledging to a piece of cloth,” Heft says. “We’re pledging to a way of life and the things we hold dear as Americans. It means you’re proud to be part of the country.”

Many believe it’s an effective tool for teaching good citizenship.

“The Pledge of Allegiance focuses kids on their country’s national heritage,” says Stephan M. Gaus, president of the Saginaw Township Board of Education. With the current debate, “you end up with a lot of fine picking over God issues. We are never going to solve the issue of one person’s sensitivity. We can’t get that far down to the farthest common denominator.”

But Lane, the SVSUprofessor says people should question just how much power the pledge has to mold society.

“We ought to be skeptical of those that declare the importance and benefits that flow from school prayer or the pledge,” Lane says. “I grew up in the south in the 1960s and started every day with the Lord’s Prayer. With little exception, I did that in a completely racially segregated public school.”

A pledge on the edge

U.S. Veteran and Catholic Pesta, for one, says he may pick up a picket sign in protest if the Supreme Court takes out “under God.” He also serves as an Elks Lodge deputy exalted ruler for the state’s east central district.

Members of other Saginaw-area service clubs or organizations, such as the Kiwanis and the American Legion, say they don’t want to see the high court tinker with the pledge but are bracing for another “blow” to religious rights.

Government officials say the court likely will decide the issue by next summer.

“I’m sure there will be a lot of us up in arms, but what are you going to do? That’s the law,” says James J. Callahan, a Carrollton Township Catholic and grand knight of Saginaw Township-based Knights of Columbus Council 4232. “You feel kind of sad. We got kids dying over there (in Iraq). It should mean something.”

Legal experts say the court ruling will apply only to how the pledge is said in public schools. Service organizations and other organizations will remain free to say the pledge how they want.

“It ought to be left up to individual groups versus the government deciding for people,” agrees Dale Holbrook, executive director of the Lake Huron Area Council of the Boy Scouts of America, which asks its members to swear a duty to “God.” “The pledge does talk a lot to values and ethics. That’s something we all need today.”

Hirschman says he doesn’t find the values of liberty and justice in the pledge objectionable, just its declaration of a nation “under God.”

Some ministers say they do not want to see the pledge issue further polarize the nation at a time when it should unify during war.

“It bothers me when I see religion used for political purposes,” Quillin says. “I have a problem with the secularization movement that wants to take out every (part of religion), but I’m also concerned about the (conservative) right movement. I’m concerned about extremes in both directions.”

Ultimately, Heft says, a debate today about the pledge may make the nation stronger tomorrow.

“We have the freedom to disagree,” he says, “and that’s what makes the country great.”

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