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Creeds and Pledges

by Julia Sneden

creed: from the Latin word credo, the first word ("I believe") of the Apostles' and Nicene creeds: a brief, authoritative formula of religious belief; 2: a set of fundamental beliefs... pledge: from Late Latin plebere, to pledge; ...a solemn promise or agreement to do or forbear...

From: Webster's Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary ________________________________________________________________________

For those of us old enough to have learned the Pledge of Allegiance without the words "under God" inserted between "one nation" and "indivisible," dropping it from the Pledge wouldn't be hard. In fact, during all the years that I taught school, I had the devil's own time remembering to put it in.

I learned the Pledge of Allegiance at the age of five, and things learned by rote in kindergarten create powerful pathways in the brain. To this day, for instance, in pressured moments when I need to discern swiftly my left from my right, I just mentally start the Pledge, and my right hand rises toward my heart. My kindergarten teacher, Miss Helen (I never knew her last name), often stood behind me as I said the Pledge, quietly took my right hand and placed it across my chest, because she knew that I was having difficulty learning the concept of left/right. That dear lady gave me a lifetime tactile memory that has served me well.

I do not recall anyone ever discussing the meaning of the Pledge with me. Perhaps during those wartime years, we didn't need to have it spelled out, or perhaps its meaning just sank in as we matured, over the years and years of opening every school morning with it.

We stopped saying the Pledge every day at some point during high school. "...under God" was inserted in 1954, the year I graduated. I remember thinking that I'd have trouble saying the Pledge with the new words in it, but I don't think I ever had to do so until, at the age of 37, I started teaching school.

By that time (the '70's), the mandatory saying of the Pledge had disappeared from the classroom, possibly because of the cynicism and heightened sensitivities that resulted from the Vietnam experience. A few of us began to reintroduce it in the 80's, which is when I found myself stumbling over that "under God," not because of principle but because I just wasn't used to it.

The children in my class learned it readily enough, but I could tell that they had absolutely no idea of the meaning of what they were saying. I decided to take it one phrase at a time, and let them know exactly what they were saying, thus:

I pledge - I promise
allegiance - to be loyal, to stay faithful
to the flag - to the beautiful symbol that represents our country: thirteen stripes for the first states; fifty stars for all the states that now make up America
of the United States of America - our country has a name, just as you do
and to the republic for which it stands - our country belongs to its people (citizens), and not to a king
one nation under God - one country with fifty states and many, many people
indivisible - nobody can split it up into separate countries
with liberty and justice for all - where everyone can live free and be treated fairly

This process made me stop and think about the one phrase with which I had trouble: "...under God" seemed to be a sticking point for me, and not just because I wasn't used to it. I was acutely aware that not all my students came from families that believed what the majority of their peers did. Who was I to imply that they should accept what others believed to be true? Still, the phrase was there, and I taught it dutifully if without emphasis.

Back when our nation was founded, agnostics and/or atheists probably existed, but I doubt they dared to speak loudly about their lack of belief. Those days weren't all that long separated from the time when Christians were killing each other because they were on opposite sides of the Roman Catholic/Protestant debate (much as the factions in Ireland have done, or as the differing factions of Islam are doing now).

Christianity was, at first, the only accepted religion in the Colonies. Consider that there was a lot of comment from Christians in other colonies when Rhode Island allowed the first synagogue to be built. It amazes me that our founding fathers were brave enough to refer only to "divine providence" without giving it a name.

The one thing they made absolutely clear was that the State had no business promoting one religion over another. Our modern-day agnostics and atheists have interpreted this to mean that having no religion should also be protected under law, and the courts have upheld their rights.

I know many good and loyal citizens who do not believe in the same God that I do. I doubt that belief in God should be a condition for voting, or serving in the military, or being on a jury. I know agnostics who are upright, moral, persons with high principles, whose consciences cause them to do what is commonly agreed to be right, without the promise of heaven or the threat of hell hanging over them.

They say that there are no atheists in foxholes, but I suspect that there have been plenty of atheists and agnostics who have died for this country.

It seems to me that those of us who have trouble accepting the deletion of "...under God" from the Pledge of Allegiance are confusing a promise of citizenship with a statement of belief.

One of the first things I learned in Sunday School (right after the Lord's Prayer) was the Apostle's Creed. It begins: "I believe..." and it spells out the basic tenets of the Christian faith.

As noted, the Pledge of Allegiance begins: "I pledge..." and it speaks of a citizen's promise to be loyal to his country.

Atheists don't question our right to stand up and recite the Apostles' Creed. They do question our right to make them speak of belief when they are reciting the Pledge of Allegiance.

The insertion of the words "under God" implies that the promiser acknowledges a higher power, which is a matter of belief, not promise. Pledging to be loyal to the republic is an affirmation that in America we are a free people, with liberty and justice for all. We have the right to believe (or not to believe) as we like, without coercion or fear.

It is, perhaps, time to revert to the earlier version of the Pledge.

 

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