Monday, December 19, 2005

A Perspective on the Pledge

NOTE - March 24, 2008: The story in this post is now the first chapter in a new book, A Perspective on the Pledge

I tend to think that it is sometimes useful to look at an issue from a slightly different point of view. So, here, I have written about the arguments concerning “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance, from a slightly different point of view.

Shelby Johnson had to admit that she was more than a little nervous as she walked into her first class. She was also a little late. Principal Hadley had kept her a little too long as he gave her a pep talk before she started her first assignment.

One advantage that she saw from this is that the class bell had already rung by the time she reached the classroom. All of the students were inside the room and most had selected a seat. Some were still standing as she entered, but they sat down while she dropped her books on her desk.

She wrote her name on the board, turned to the class, and took a deep breath before saying, “All stand for the Pledge of Allegiance.” She had been told that this ritual was useful in getting the kids’ minds focused on the fact that they were now in school and that the class had started, like the announcement that "all stand" before a judge entered the courtroom.

She paused when she noticed that one boy, near the back of the room, remained slouched down in his chair.

“Excuse me,” Shelby said, looking at the student. She stepped up between the rows to get a little bit closer and to make it clear who she was talking to. “Excuse me. What is your name?”

“Shawn,” the student answered. He scarcely looked up, but remained focused on the pen that he was fiddling with.

“Shawn. I would understand if you do not want to say the Pledge of Allegiance. However, I would like it if you would at least stand while the rest of the class said it, just to show a little respect to the flag.”

The boy sat silently for a second, then shook his head and said, “I don’t think I can do that, ma’am.”

Shelby got a sudden knot in her stomach. The rest of the students were standing and ready to start. She knew that they were all evaluating their new teacher, wondering what they were in for. She had heard stories of classes that would take a young and inexperienced teacher, chew them up, and spit them out again.

She asked Shawn, “Why not?”

Shawn kept his eyes focused on his pen, and slumped in his chair as if he was about to slide underneath his desk. When he spoke, his voice was soft, making it hard for her to hear him. "Ms. Johnson, the words 'with liberty and justice for all' were put into the Pledge in order to make us hate tyranny and injustice, right? I mean, we say the pledge because we are supposed to take a stand against tyranny and injustice. Those are bad things."

Shelby shrugged. This was, after all, supposed to be an Amerycan History class, and they would be talking about these things soon enough. "Yes. This country was founded on the idea that freedom is better than tyranny and justice is better than injustice."

Shawn glanced up, and made eye contact with her only for a second. She noted that he had nothing on his desk but his history book. Otherwise, she would have thought that he was reading something that somebody else had made him say. Shawn continued, "And the part about this country being indivisible. That was because of the Civil War. The guy who invented the Pledge wanted us to swear that we would uphold the Union and not promote rebellion. That's why he put the word 'indivisible' in the Pledge."

"Of course," said Shelby. "That's why you should show respect for the Flag. These are all good things that you should be proud of and that you should want to defend."

"Okay," said Shawn. "Then, 50 years ago, Congress added the word white to the Pledge of Allegiance. We are supposed to be one white nation, indivisible. When we pledge allegiance to one white nation, doesn't this mean that not being white is as bad as being in favor of rebellion or tyranny or injustice?"

"No," Shelby said with a sigh of relief. "No, not at all. Congress added that to reflect our heritage. It simply pays respect to the fact that all of our founding fathers were white, and that they clearly wanted to establish a white nation, and the fact that all of our past Presidents have been white."

"And all future Presidents should be white," Shawn added.

Shelby's smile vanished.

Shawn continued. "That's the real reason why Congress put the word white in the Pledge of Allegiance. It was not so much to show respect for our heritage, but to tell people not to elect a President who was not white. You can’t have a white nation unless all of your politicians are white."

"No," said Shelby hesitantly. "Anybody can grow up to be President. That is another one of the things that makes this country great. We'll be reading about that, too."

"Ms. Johnson. You're telling me that if I were going to run for President, nobody in this country is going to say, 'We are supposed to be one white nation, and that means we are supposed to be voting against anybody who isn't white, just as we are supposed to be voting against any president who supports secession from the union, tyranny, or injustice. Do you mean to tell me that Congress did not add the word white to the Pledge of Allegiance fifty years ago as a way of putting anybody who was not white at a political disadvantage?"

"Now, Shawn, you obviously know that you don't have to say the Pledge if you don't want to. I'm not asking you to say it. I'm just asking you to stand to show some respect for the good things that this country stands for. A lot of people died to buy you the freedoms you enjoy. Don't you think you owe them a little bit of gratitude?"

The boy bit his lip, and Shelby knew that she had struck a nerve with him. Still, he was not ready to give in. "Do you think that just because I don't have to say that this is one white nation that this means that the pledge is not racist?"

"Of course it isn't," Shelby said. "This is a free country. You should show your respect for all the good things this country stands for. You should be proud of those things and show some measure of gratitude to all of those soldiers and citizens that made this a free country."

Shawn looked up again, this time a little longer. "Ms. Johnson, if somebody was about to lead a room full of people in calling you . . . I'm sorry to say this, ma'am but I am just trying to illustrate a point here . . . if he was about to lead a whole room of your fellow teachers in calling you a cheep whore, and somebody said that you should stand and show your respect for what he was doing, would you?"

A couple of the other children snickered and Shelby felt her face grow hot.

"Shawn," she said. He continued to look at his desk. "Shawn! Look at me while I am talking to you."

Shawn showed no signs of moving for a few seconds. Then he let out a long sigh. He put his pen down and sat up straight in his desk. Folding his hands in front of him, he turned toward her and held her gaze. He did not flinch or look away. That did not help, Shelby thought to herself.

One of the other students, sitting on the opposite side of the room, shouted, "You liberals will not be happy until you have removed every sign of the white race from the public square."

Shawn shrugged and answered softly, "I am not saying that white people should be banned from the public square. I want the public square to be neutral on the issue of who is white and who is not. I do not see a problem with that."

"It's a problem if you're white!"

"That's enough!" Shelby shouted. "I have not given anybody else permission to talk!"

Just then, one of the other students – a white girl -- sat down. Shelby turned to her and said, "Jenny, I did not give anybody permission to sit down, either."

The girl remained seated. "It makes sense, Ms. Johnson. The Pledge states that you have to be white to lead this country, and that's not fair."

"Jenny, what do you want me to tell your parents when they ask me about how things are going at school?"

Jenny looked over at Shawn, then back at Shelby. "Tell them that I stood up for a friend. They'll understand. And if they don't; well, it's no big deal to do the right think when it's easy. A person really only shows her character by doing the right thing when it is hard. It's wrong, Ms. Johnson, to say that we have to be a white nation."

Shelby took a step back.

"I'm sorry, Ms. Johnson," Shawn said. "I know that this does not make your job any easier. I promise that I'm not here to cause any trouble. However, don't ask me to stand and show any respect for the idea that this has to be one white nation. I just can't do that. To be honest, I don't think you should be doing that either, but I will leave that up to you. Honest, Ms. Johnson, I’ll just sit here quietly until you’re done."

"Alright," said Shelby. "I'll discuss this with Principle Hadley and I'll let him decide. In the mean time, let's say the Pledge of Allegiance."

While most of the students put their hands on their hearts, two other students sat down. One was white, and the other was not.

The rest of the class followed the teacher's lead.

When they got to the middle of the Pledge, most of the students shouted, "…one WHITE nation…"

Shawn had been ready for it, and did not flinch. They were doing just what the all-white members of the Senate had done a couple of years earlier when a challenge to the Pledge made its way through the courts.

However, the outburst caught Shelby by surprise. She stopped and turned at the students who had shouted the word, and caught them smiling in self-admiration. After they finished, they took their seats, whispering among themselves and looking back at Shawn. Shelby reached into her routine for something comforting. She spoke hesitantly to the class. "Okay, let's start with introductions."


Anonymous said...

I missed this one. Nicely done.

When the controversy began I was what is commonly called a 'lapsed Catholic.' I still considered myself a Christian, though I had stopped going to church. I thought Michael Newdow was a pompous ass for bringing up that case. I also thought that the pledge had always had "under God" in it.

I still think that very localized religious displays are permissible, so long as they are meant to be inclusive. So long as everyone's faith - or even just the two dominant ones in the area - get a turn at their respective holidays, I don't mind. The simple fact that there are no atheist holy days (by definition!) shouldn't stop anyone from having fun. Indeed, I have no problem celebrating Christmas (though undoubtedly different reasons now).

Your post on this subject was startlingly enlightening. I had before lumped the pledge in with those local displays of religion. The fact that several religions all name their god "God" and the fact that recitation of the pledge is not compulsory was enough to satisfy the establishment issues for me. But no more. Well done.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Wow! 100 essays, and I finally produced one that had an impact on somebody's thinking!

Actually, if this helped you see the issue in a new light, I would like to suggest that you show it to others who used to think as you did. Newdow will be making news again in the future. I think it would be nice to have something out there that explains his position against those who will certainly be condemning him -- like the U.S. Senate.

Buckster said...

This is a tremendously powerful take on the issue. I love the way you've addressed this. Well done!

rnrstar said...

I have said that this issue is really a civil rights issue but the response from "under God" suporters is that no one has been lynched or imprisoned over it.

Your article helps to disprove this falacy and provides yet another example of why having "under God" in the pledge is wrong.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Buckster, rnrstar: I am glad that you liked it. It has turned out that this blog entry was my greatest hit of December, 2005.

If you think that it might actually have the power to persuade people to change their minds, I again would be pleased if you would put this article to use.

I think that is important to have good arguments out there the next time Newdow's case makes news.

The Reverend Schmitt., FCD. said...

I'd just like to say that this was a striking piece of writing. It took a second for the penny to drop, and it did so rather forcefully.

Anonymous said...

Came here via the most recent COTG, and I have to say this is absolutely fantastic. Analogy is a useful tool for demonstrating things to people who might not recognize a particular injustice but who would most likely recognize injustice in a larger sense (usually if they were placed in the minority position), or in this case to people who would recognize other specific injustices and could then be made to see the similarities between cases. It's disturbing that people so frequently need such things spelled out for them, that they can't recognize the structures and rhetoric of injustice unless it's turned against them. American history in particular seems to be largely reducible to an endless cycle of injustice, enlightenment, and the subsequent finding of a new prejudice to pursue--if anything, this makes the tireless work of fighting irrational bias all the more noble. "Under God" isn't in and of itself the most significant or egregious instance of our culture's anti-atheist bias, but it's certainly symptomatic, and the underlying beliefs are no less silly than those of homophobia or racism.


Anonymous said...

Oh my! I'm making your essay required reading for any of my friends who wonder why I'm upset with the pledge.

Very well done sir.

Alonzo Fyfe said...


I am honored. And, thank you. I am, admittedly, curious as to how this story is received by people who would not normally visit a site like this. I would like to know if anybody has been able to use it to actually get others (classmates) to sit during the pledge, when they otherwise would have stood -- like Jenny in the story.

Anonymous said...

A stunning piece.

You may recognize my name as a notorious online gadfly. I have long used such "word substitution" analogies to try to expose the unconscious bigotry that keeps atheists excluded and marginalized in American society. But I have no reservation in admitting that this piece of yours is more powerful, direct and profound than anything I have written about the subject. It was an emotional read, and I thank you for it. I am going to forward this to everyone I know (with proper attribution and a link back here), and hope it develops a life of its own as an Internet "meme".

Bravo, and THANK YOU.

- galiel

(For some reason my blogger identity of galiel isn't registering so I am posting as "anonymous")

Randy said...

One counterargument I might expect to be used to such an analogy is that an atheist or Christian can always choose to change, but you're born black or white (etc.), and pretty much stuck with it. That seems to make a difference to some people, although I've never really understood why; for instance, I expect that it's a lot of the reason why gay-hating fundamenatlists want to insist that homosexuality is a choice, while GLBT groups seem to support the idea that it's genetic. I take the opinion that it doesn't really matter either way, since I'd support the same freedoms for them either way.

Anyway, getting back to the topic at hand, I suspect some would argue that it's all different and a false analogy because of that. Oh, and a little copyediting help: "cheep whore", and "Ameryca", if that wasn't on purpose to set up an alternate reality version of America.

Alonzo Fyfe said...


The counter-argument would work if one held that the Pledge of Allegiance was intentionally designed to be denigrating towards atheists. Then, one can say that denigrating remarks are warranted because atheism is chosen and it is wrong to choose such a thing.

However, the Pledge is marketed as something that is not derogatory towards atheists, which this story proves to be false.

The "Ameryca" misspelling was deliberate. The other was not, and will be corrected. Thank you.

Reason's Whore said...

Excellent piece. Alonzo. I will use this example myself in future discussions of the pledge issue.

John, I could no more choose to change from being an atheist than I could change my racial identity. I didn't choose to become an atheist, it was the result of information and research. At this point, asking me to "choose" religion would be like asking me to choose to believe the earth is flat or gravity doesn't exist. I could pretend, I suppose, but I know it ain't so.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Note: The issue of the possibility of change is one of the issues raised in the book version.

Namely, if some sort of gene therepy made it possible for people to change their race, would it then be permissible to have a pledge of allegiance to one white nation?

Or is it, as I hold, that the possibility of change is irrelevant.

Unknown said...

This really puts the whole thing in perspective. Thank you, that was very well thought out.

Anonymous said...

If you are running for president of the United States, you would be branded un-American and never win. An atheist is betraying his/her ideals and philosophy if they say this is a nation under a god. This section of the pledge, then, is designed to prevent nontheists from taking office.

Anonymous said...

The analogy you use and facts of motivation are incorrect, thus the point of your story is logically wrong.

Thinkaboutit (former Restore the Pledge forum member)