Tuesday December 13, 2005

Opinion: Pledge Allegiance to God

Michael Newdow objects to the Pledge of Allegiance because it violates the First Amendment. Christians ought to object to the Pledge because it violates the First Commandment, according to an opinion piece by M. Therese Lysaught, Ph.D., a UD religious studies professor.

(Op-Ed pieces are the opinion of the author and do not reflect an official University of Dayton position.)

Michael Newdow, an atheist, only takes issue with the words "under God." He argues that these words entail an unconstitutional government endorsement of religion. The Justices of the Supreme Court, when they considered Newdow's original law suit in the summer of 2004, had a hard time seeing any real religious content in the pledge and labeled it "far from compulsory prayer." Yet many Christians have rallied behind the Pledge because they see it as the last bastion of prayer in school.

For Christians, that ought to be precisely the problem. The Pledge, I would argue, is the last bastion of prayer in school. But to whom, we should ask, or rather, to what are they praying?

The First Commandment has been central to the identity of Jews and Christians for millennia: "I am the Lord your God… You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself a graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath…you shall not bow down to them or serve them; for I the LORD your God am a jealous God" (Exodus 20: 2-5). Christians and Jews, in other words, are specifically prohibited from praying to "graven images," from bowing down before or serving any god except God.

But that, I would suggest, is exactly what children are taught to do when they say the Pledge. Think about the act itself. Five mornings a week, an adult instructs children to stand up together, to put their hands over their hearts, and to recite to the flag, aloud and in unison, that they will serve it. The only other place most children do a similar sort of thing is on Sunday, in church. There, only once a week, they learn to stand together with others, to fold their hands in front of their hearts, to sing and recite together prayers, while facing forward, looking upon the Bible or a cross.

How are children to distinguish between these two acts? How are they to know that the flag and God are not the same thing? From an outside perspective, both activities are more similar than different. And they work in the same way to shape their minds and hearts, to shape them at the deepest level of body and feeling. Both are public acts of prayer. It is no accident that the Pledge was originally penned by a minister.

One cannot serve two gods. One will inevitably trump the other. Or worse, the two will become confused with each other. My children attend preschool at a Methodist church. This year, the school introduced the Pledge every morning. By the end of the first week of classes, my children had changed the focus of their mealtime and bedtime prayers. No longer did they pray for the victims of the tsunami or the victims of the hurricane or the poor. Instead, they began praying for the "people of the United States of America." Seemingly small practices can have powerful effects.

Now certainly, the people of the United States need our prayers. No doubt about that. But idolatry is a subtle temptation, one of the easiest to be deceived by. For this reason – and because Scripture considers it the worst of all sins – it comes first in the list of the Ten Commandments. And for this reason, it is the primary sin against which we should school our children well.

Yet even religiously-based schools seem to find it difficult to resist this other god. Consider the case of Stephen Kobasa. A twenty-five year veteran of teaching high school English, Kobasa was fired in October from Maximillian Kolbe Cathedral High School in Bridgeport, Connecticut, because he objected to the school's new requirement that his students recite the Pledge every morning and that he permanently display the flag in his classroom. (He permitted his students to recite the Pledge if they wish but he refused to permanently display the flag). Kobasa is less concerned about his first amendment rights than his ability to be faithful to the Gospel, to center his teaching in "no other God" than the God of the Judeo-Christian tradition. It is no small irony that this occurred at a school named after a saint martyred for his resistance to the state.

Christians, then, should reconsider supporting the Pledge in public schools. Children do not need the Pledge to learn proper patriotism. Children love the place where they are born and live, as they should. In school, they should indeed be taught about their country – its history, its government structure, its literature, and all things good and bad. But they ought not be taught to pray to it. Indeed, the Pledge of Allegiance violates the First Amendment, but in more ways than Newdow can begin to imagine.

More importantly, Christian and Catholic schools should re-examine the place the Pledge and the flag hold in their curriculum and life together. More and more parishes and congregations are beginning to see the deep contradiction between the cross and the flag and have begun removing national flags from church sanctuaries. Removing the Pledge from school certainly does not indicate a lack of patriotism nor, as many fear, will it harm the common good. Christians like Kobasa care deeply about the common good – deeply enough to pay a serious price. They only ask to be free to follow their conscience in promoting an even broader vision of the common good, one rooted in the Gospel that transcends any national identity. God, as the Scriptures repeatedly reminds us, is the God of all nations. Let us love our country, but let us teach our children to pray to and pledge allegiance to God and to God alone.

M. Therese Lysaught, Ph.D. is an Associate Professor in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Dayton and is the Chair of the Ekklesia Project.