mr. grant’s rant: pledge

Goodwin is a 78-year-old Nixon appointee with 42 years on the bench, known in judicial circles as a moderate, balanced jurist who is guided first and foremost by legal precedent and the Constitution. So far he and his fellow 9th Court judge Stephen Reinhardt have been faced with protestors outside their San Francisco courthouse and reportedly had their houses buzzed by a small plane towing a One Nation Under God” banner..'”

 

 

Like the vast majority of Americans, I began each and every day of my grade school career (and possibly both of my kindergarten stints—I honestly can’t recall) by standing at attention, facing the limp, motionless American flag that hung in the front left corner of the classroom, placing my grubby little hand on my breast, and reciting the Pledge of Allegiance. It was an exercise in rote memorization and recitation, never questioned, never explained to any extent, just a quick run-through that, thanks to its inevitability and unquestionable propriety, soon took on about as much relevance to our little mob of miscreants as brushing our teeth or marching off to the lunchroom. These were Catholic parochial schools in my case; some of the teachers would start their classes with a prayer as well, but not all—it was left up to each teacher. But the Pledge got said, no matter what, and that was that. Our little brains would go into suspended animation, get the Pledge out of the way, and then re-engage for a day of sopping up new knowledge and surviving the playground pecking order.

I rarely gave the Pledge another thought once I moved on to high school, college, and the advanced playground pecking order that is the modern workplace. But you could have rousted me from the deepest drunken college beer-bong session and gotten me to recite it perfectly, if somewhat slurred. It is ingrained, permanently, in both my conscious and subconscious memory, no small feat by any means.

Maybe that’s why I was so taken aback when I read a short news story on the CNN website on June 26: “‘Under God’” in Pledge Ruled Unconstitutional—A federal appeals court ruled Wednesday that reciting the Pledge of Allegiance in public schools is an unconstitutional ‘endorsement of religion’ because of the addition of the phrase ‘under God’ in 1954 by Congress.”

It must have just been posted; there were no accompanying stories yet, just the above with a few items about the as-yet unnamed plaintiff and the 9th Court of Appeals in San Francisco, which handed down the decision. I couldn’t believe what I was reading; it struck me immediately that the shit would soon be hitting the fan—at a time of war (New War, War on Terror, what-have-you) a federal court decides to take on this impossible, searing hot-button issue?

The reply has been swift and in most cases downright belligerent. While it would appear to be an impossibly complex, nuanced issue to describe, much less understand, certain photo-op-hungry politicians, pundits, and theocratic thugs have been more than happy to put it in simple, black-and-white English.

Let’s start at the top, shall we? George W. Bush played it safe and lagged up with a one-word comment: “Ridiculous.” You know, no amount of commentary could add much to that. I’ll just move along.

In the Senate, Robert Byrd, D-West Virginia, who just so happens to have voted for the insertion of “under God” into the Pledge of Allegiance in 1954, was a bit more verbose, sputtering “I wonder if that judge would hold the Declaration of Independence unconstitutional? I hope the Senate will waste no time in throwing this back in the face of this stupid judge. Stupid, that’s what he is.” Byrd also threatened that Judge Alfred T. Goodwin had better not come before him or “he’ll be blackballed.” Blackballed? Sounds to me like an impassioned oath to deliver a swift kick to the clock weights of the offending magistrate. Tough talk, indeed. Poor old Bob probably couldn’t help himself, though. In a world where the leaders of the United States and Russia now lovingly josh each other with names like “Pootie-Poo” and “Bushie-Wooshie,” where the Cold War is absolutely positively done for, where the handiest images of pure evil are a ghostly, bearded, cave-dwelling spook in Afghanistan (or Pakistan or wherever-the-hell-he-is) or, worse yet, the captains of American industry, the pickings are slim for easily vilified targets of his righteous, God-fearing ire.

Apparently, in Byrd’s mind, “this stupid judge” is some mouth-breathing, slobbering young God-baiter with too much time on his hands ever since Phish broke up. But actually, Goodwin is a 78-year-old Nixon appointee with 42 years on the bench, known in judicial circles as a moderate, balanced jurist who is guided first and foremost by legal precedent and the Constitution. So far he and his fellow 9th Court judge Stephen Reinhardt have been faced with protestors outside their San Francisco courthouse and reportedly had their houses buzzed by a small plane towing a “One Nation Under God” banner.

House Speaker Dennis “Not Newt” Hastert swiftly declared, “Of course, we are one nation under God. The Pledge of Allegiance is a patriotic salute that brings people of all faiths together to share in the American spirit…it’s time for the Senate to move forward and confirm some common-sense jurists.” Need I point that he obviously means, “hand-picked, conservative Republican jurists?” But possibly the biggest boner of the day came from Sen. Kit Bond, R-Missouri, who opined that “the Founding Fathers are surely spinning in their graves.” No, it wasn’t George W. who said that, but it was certainly worthy of “Bushism” status, seeing as how the original Pledge of Allegiance was written by a socialist minister in 1892, and “under God” wasn’t inserted until 1954. If our Founding Fathers—a group of men who seemed more inclined to steer clear of hat-doffing and pledge-saying as they set about inventing their republic—are in fact spinning in their graves, I’d say it started long before the 9th Court started lobbing thermonuclear hot potatoes like this.

And who can forget the sight of 150 House members marching en masse to the steps outside the Capitol on the very day the court’s decision was announced, planting their right palms firmly upon their hearts, reciting the Pledge as they jostled for the best camera angles? This after a swift Senate vote of 99-0 approving a resolution “expressing support for the Pledge of Allegiance,” followed by a 416-3 House vote protesting the court ruling. Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-South Dakota) and Sen. Trent Lott (R-Mississippi) managed to pry their hands from each others’ throats long enough to push it through, Daschle calling the court’s decision “nuts” and Lott calling it “incorrect and stupid.”

It’s hard to imagine a bigger, juicier, fluffier mushball of a “gift cause” being lobbed to a Congress and president who need it more. These folks are facing mid-term elections at a time when the economy stinks on ice, voters are clamoring for their representatives to crucify corporate crooks (plenty of past and future CEOs are to be found in the Capitol and in the White House, you know), and a complacent media blackout on America’s New War makes for little battlefield glory for our commander-in-chief.

Blowhard-in-chief Bill O’Reilly (“The O’Reilly Factor”) has been bellowing and bullying his way through the airwaves with statements like, “If that’s offensive to you, don’t say it. But don’t intrude on the history of this country because you don’t like the concept of God. That is tyrannical and unacceptable, even in a place like San Francisco where these pinheaded judges practice.” He also landed Dr. Michael Newdow, the man who brought suit to remove “under God” from the pledge, for his segment of the Fox newsmagazine show “The Pulse” (motto: “We report. You decide.”), introducing him as a “self-styled patriot” and “the most despised man in America” and peppering him with questions like “So, why do people hate you?” O’Reilly’s smarmy, self-satisfied smirk never left his face as Newdow attempted over and over to sidestep questions like that and try to explain the reasons for his lawsuit.

Our old friend Jerry Falwell chimed in as well, blustering away the day after the ruling that “When the Congress put those words ‘under God’ in there, it was for a specific purpose, to say to the world that we are not China, we are not Russia…at a time of war, at a time when America is at peril, like right now, we do not need to alienate God or 96 percent of the American population who are people of faith who believe in God for the sake of a few radicals like the guy who filed this.” Conspicuously absent from his statement, of course, were the “pagans, abortionists, feminists, gays, and lesbians” he and Pat Robertson were astute enough to finger for putting America at peril in the first place, but that’s another story.

So the response played out about as rapidly and loudly as I first suspected it might, with much foul matter emanating from a windmill-sized fan. It’s just irresistible to lawmakers and corporate media outlets when you present them with an easily trumpeted cause like keeping God in the Pledge. They’ll gleefully snatch it up and run with it while dancing gingerly around more prickly issues like universal health care, Medicaid, or the Superfund.

It’s also a perfect opportunity to bash atheists, elitists, liberals, unmarried parents—basically, anybody who dares to question the rote recitation of a pledge which, from the beginning, has been altered and manipulated to fit the ideals, fears, and prejudices of its times.

The original Pledge of Allegiance—I now know this thanks to the current controversy—was written in 1892 by a socialist Baptist minister named Francis Bellamy. It was published in Youth’s Companion, one of many wildly popular, family-oriented magazines (Cosmopolitan, Ladies Home Journal; later Boy’s Life, etc.) that were the Martha Stewart Living of their day, touting an idyllic, impossible-to-fulfill world of patriotic, unsullied, pasty-white wholesomeness. Bellamy reportedly agonized over each and every word of his short pledge, which was meant strictly as an expression of patriotism:

I pledge allegiance to my flag and the republic for which it stands, one
nation indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.

Youth’s Companion pushed the Pledge tirelessly in its campaign to “put a flag over every schoolhouse,” and by the 1920s the Pledge of Allegiance had become a part of the flag-raising ceremonies of many public schools. It was also during the 1920s that the words “my flag” were changed to the much more specific “the flag of the United States of America,” since it was feared that swarthy hordes of crafty immigrants could too easily be thinking of the Old Country’s flags as they recited “I pledge allegiance to my flag…”

The next major change didn’t take place until the days of Cold War America, when Congress (under pressure from the Knights of Columbus) passed a joint resolution adding the words “under God” to the Pledge. President Eisenhower signed it readily, on Flag Day, June 14, 1954, adding that “From this day forward, millions of our schoolchildren will daily proclaim in every city and town, every village and rural school house, the dedication of our nation and our people to the Almighty.”

The Pledge remained untouched from that day until June 26, when the 9th Court’s decision in Michael J. Newdow vs. U.S. Congress, et al ignited the current firestorm. Goodwin himself issued a stay of his own decision barely one day later, pending appeals, and the two avenues likely to be pursued by the Justice Department and/or Congress involve rehearing the case before a full panel of eleven 9th Court justices, or taking it all the way to the Supreme Court. Either way, it shouldn’t take much of an educated guess to speculate on the outcome. The Pledge brawl is weighed too heavily on the side of public opinion and political opportunism to stand a chance in further appeals.

But if anything on a deeper level is to be gained from the bluster and finger pointing and outraged rhetoric, it may be the simple fact that people are paying attention to something that is truly unique in the American public experience. For all the admissions that we never pay attention to it, that we simply recite the Pledge unthinkingly, giggling Beavis and Butthead-like as grade school kids, it really is the only pledge to be found in such a universal environment. As much as local school boards or governments try to slip mandated observations, curricula, or practices into already packed school days (Francis E. Willard Day? Bicycle Safety mantras? Ask any teacher about this you’ll get an earful), they never stick, but the Pledge remains. It’s a marketer’s fantasy, really—the thought of millions upon millions of schoolchildren standing at attention for 15 seconds, each and every school day for eight to twelve years, reciting an easily memorized, rarely questioned promise of loyalty, is the stuff of which advertisers’ wet dreams are made. Even the fast food outlets located inside school cafeterias can’t force teachers to encourage students to eat their glop.

 

Originally published:
Issue Twenty-One
August 2002

 

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