Memorial day presents something of a dilemma for me.
My father was in the military. He joined the army at the age of 18 with the intention of making the military his career. He served through the closing days of World War II, the Korean war, and on into the Cold War. For most of his career, he worked in the military in intelligence. During the Korean war, this meant a few trips behind enemy lines.
My father was an atheist. He joined the military before the Pledge of Allegiance had the words 'under God' in it, and when our national motto was e pluribus unum rather than 'In God We Trust'. He felt that a soldier’s duty was to protect his country – which, in the case of the United States, meant protecting and defending the Constitution of the United States.
He did not approve of adding 'under God' in the Pledge of Allegiance. A soldier's duty was to his country, not to his church. What was a soldier supposed to do, after pledging allegiance to 'one nation under God', if his church demanded one thing of him but his country demanded something else? No soldier, in his mind, should have his loyalties divided in this way.
My father served in the military, as he intended, until the military transport he was riding in crashed in Japan. He was quite severely injured, and was given a military discharge and listed as 100% disabled as a result. Over time, scar tissue became brittle and internal injuries reopened.
My father died three years ago.
Now, Memorial Day comes along. Several organizations plan Memorial Day events to honor those soldiers who have served their country. However, as I read the announcements, most of those events involve saying the Pledge of Allegiance.
Assuming that I went to one of those events, what am I supposed to do?
When they get to the part of the ceremony when they say the Pledge of Allegiance, I could sit while everybody else stands and goes through the ritual. We know how that would look. To everybody else attending (including many of the service personnel), it would look as if I have no respect for those who served this country. It would be taken as an act of contempt.
On the other hand, I could stand and go along with a ritual of pledging allegiance to God. Let's set aside my own objections – that I can make no sense of pledging allegiance to something that is not real. In this case, the relevant issue is the fact that I would be promoting something that my father was against - the idea of military personnel pledging allegiance to something other than their country. I would not be honoring my father any by doing this, I would only be appeasing others.
A third option would be that of standing and pretending to participate in the ritual (rather than actually participating), pretending to pledge allegiance to God while I secretly crossed my fingers or mumbled past the words that I found offensive or spoke only of that which I actually believed. However, these gestures are absurd to the point of being childish. If I behave as if I support these rituals then, in the eyes of everybody else there, I do support these rituals.
To see this, assume that an officer should take his oath in a room full of people such that nobody could not tell that he is simply mouthing the words. Imagine him later claiming, when accused of violating his oath, that he did not take the oath. He merely mouthed the words. At best, this would be taken as naive and childish. If his intention was not to take that oath, he can only discharge his intention by making his refusal obvious and unambiguous. Anything else (like taking the oath and changing a few words while hoping that nobody notices) is to be understood as taking the oath as written.
Another option that I have available is not to go – to leave the ceremonies honoring our soldiers to those who are willing to pledge allegiance to God while doing so. Unfortunately, this has the effect of generating the illusion that only those who believe in God honor our soldiers and their sacrifice. Those who do not believe in God stay home and refuse to show respect. In other words, this is not going to be seen as being much different than going to the ceremony and sitting out the Pledge.
The latter option, where these rituals are left to be the exclusive domain of the theists, compounds the wrongness.
My father wrote to me about one of the Memorial Day celebrations he attended when he was still alive - a ceremony involving an air show (an activity that my father, who had served in the air force, very much enjoyed) that was set up to honor those who served their country – people like my father.
However, with my father in the audience, those running the event decided to read the following (or something very much like it) over the loud speaker:
"In God We Trust" is our national motto.
This is not some Christian, right wing, political slogan.
We adopted this motto because men and women, on principles, founded this nation, and this is clearly documented. It is certainly appropriate to display it on the walls of our schools.
If God offends you, then I suggest you consider another part of the world as your new home, because God is part of our culture.
If Stars and Stripes offend you, or you don't like Uncle Sam, then you should seriously consider a move to another part of this planet.
We are happy with our culture and have no desire to change, and we really don't care how you did things where you came from.
This is OUR COUNTRY, our land, and our lifestyle.
Our First Amendment gives every citizen the right to express his opinion and we will allow you every opportunity to do so. But, once you are done complaining, whining, and griping about our flag, our pledge, our national motto, or our way of life, I highly encourage you to take advantage of one other great American freedoms, the right to leave.
They read this to an audience that included my father. My father made service to this country his career, swearing to uphold and defend the Constitution, and willing to do so with his life even though he knew he would not get any heavenly rewards for doing so if he should die. Some things are simply worth the risk.
To my father, the Constitution was worth protecting. Yet, a group of people at a government run Memorial day ceremony decided to tell the audience that those Americans who had ideas like my father, who were willing to defend and protect the Constitution with the one and only life they would ever have, should leave the country, because they were not good enough to be here.
This is how these people decided to thank my father for his service to this country - his decision to make a career out of protecting the Constitution of the United States.
It was a sickening display. Yet, it was what can be expected when Memorial Day celebrations become the exclusive domain of those who 'trust in God' and pledge allegiance, not to the Constitution, but to their particular diety.
A pledge of allegiance to 'one nation under God', combined with false but nearly universal assumption (supported by the government) that a person who does not support 'one nation under God' dishonors those who fought to defend this country, creates this type of situation. The government, in supporting this practice, supports a situation where people like my father cannot be honored. Memorial day honors are reserved exclusively for Americans who support 'one nation under God'.
Memorial Day will continue to look like this in the future, until people realize that there are people in the military who do not give any allegiance to 'one nation under God' but to The Constitution of the United States. These people too deserve our respect.
It is disgraceful that, when it comes to honoring those who defend the Constitution, our government allows only two options. You can choose to show no respect to anybody who served this country, or you can join others in respecting only the theists who served this country while denigrating atheists. The option of showing respect for all who served this country - theists and atheists alike - does not exist because a bigoted faction insists on excluding any who do not share their religion from these ceremonies.
So, where do you go to pay respects to the atheist soldier who gave his allegiance, not to God, but to the Constitution?