ONE CLASSROOM UNDER GOD
News item, October 14, 2003: The Supreme Court agreed today to consider whether public schools violate the Constitution by requiring teachers to lead their classes in a Pledge of Allegiance that includes the phrase "under God." This is a reprint of an essay first published on this website back in March.
Its 1954, and Im eight years old. Every school-day morning in Miss Brawleys third-grade classroom, my classmates and I gather around the American flag that hangs in the corner, put our hands over our hearts, and recite something called The Pledge of Allegiance.
None of us knows exactly what a pledge is or what allegiance means, but we do it every morning, solemnly, because were just kids and Miss Brawley, behind her rimless glasses, is a grown-up. In the world of third grade, kids do what grown-ups tell them. Only bad kids dont.
Sometimes sullen Wayne Hudson refuses to say the pledge. Instead, he sits at his desk, staring straight ahead, arms crossed. Wayne, we all think, is a bad kid, and we stay away from him at recess.
One morning during this year, 1954, Miss Brawley tells us to add a couple of new words to our ritual. The words are under God.
Im eight years old. Im a good kid. I add under God the way Im told. It even makes sense, because I know all about God from Sunday school: hes a big white-bearded old man, white like me, in white robes up in the white clouds. Of course our nation is under him.
Im eight years old. What I dont know then is that this is how it happens: This is how a government takes a religious idea and drips it into the brains of its kids. It starts with the president (Eisenhower, say), and it seeps down through Congress and the state legislatures and the local school boards (enemies, all, of godlessness), and finally it filters through poor Miss Brawley into the brains of the children.
And the child who resists--well, he is, ipso facto, a bad child. A child like Wayne.
Im eight years old. All I know is that our morning ritual is a little boring--less meaningful than the jumping jacks we do in gym. Ive never heard of the establishment clause, so I dont yet know that the whole affair is unconstitutional on the face of it. I dont yet understand that, despite this, no public official dares speak out against under God if he wants to get re-elected.
Im eight years old. I havent yet read Alexis de Toqueville, so I dont yet know about the tyranny of the majority. (I think Wayne Hudson knew.)
Im eight years old. I dont think to ask: What kind of nation is so insecure that it requires a daily loyalty oath from its third-graders?
And I donÔt think to ask: What god? Which god? Whose god?
Im eight years old. I dont understand that I dont have to say the pledge, I dont have
to say under God. Hey, you dont want to make Miss Brawley mad. So I say under God the way the President and Joe McCarthy and Miss Brawley want me to. . . .
Now its 2003, and Im 57 years old. Now I wonder why God has been stamped on our coins and chiseled into our courthouses and invoked in our city halls and congressional chambers. You see, I think of God a bit differently now.
Of Wayne Hudson, too.
Im 57 years old, and I dont want my child every day being asked to give voice to a religious idea that has the whole weight of the government--not to mention his teacher and all his classmates--behind it. Id prefer that my government didnt hand us God, gods, anybodys god.
But of course the majority thinks otherwise.
And after all, with their hands over their hearts and their eyes on the flag, theyre the good kids.