“Of all the tyrannies that affect mankind, tyranny in religion is the worst; every other species of tyranny is limited to the world we live in; but this attempts to stride beyond the grave, and seeks to pursue us into eternity.”– Thomas Paine, The Age of Reason
The Religious Right has become very protective of the Pledge of Allegiance – hysterically so – and not in a funny sense, unless you have a very dark sense of humor. America is “one nation under God” and that is all there is to it. If you don’t get with that program, they’re telling us, then get out. And true to the intolerant history of conservative Christianity going back to the fourth century, they are not afraid to coerce obedience.
Of course, the “under God” was not originally a part of the Pledge, which was written back in 1892. The “under God” was not added until 1954, during the conservative-driven hysteria marking the Cold War. Strange that for half a century it was permissible to not be a nation under God, but since then Americans must absolutely prostrate themselves before the Lord God Almighty or face the wrath of his self-appointed inquisitors on earth.
The American Humanist Association, through its DontSaythePledge.com website, “which encourages individuals to boycott the Pledge until the phrase “under God” is removed from it,” is fighting for the First Amendment rights of students who don’t want to say “under God.”
The AHA tells us of one tenth grade student in the Ferndale Area School District in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, who,
objects to the “under God” language in the Pledge, has attempted to quietly sit at her desk during the flag-salute exercise. In response, her teacher has instructed her to stand for the exercise, under threat of discipline pursuant to a school policy that was recently changed to require students to stand. The student was also told that failing to stand is disrespectful to members of the U.S. military.
Staying true to the First Amendment’s guarantee of freedom disrespects the men and women who are tasked with defending that freedom? The Religious Right – and the Ferndale Area School District – have a very warped perception of what, precisely, freedom entails.
“The right of public school students to sit out the Pledge of Allegiance is well-settled,” said David Niose, legal director of the Appignani Humanist Legal Center, in reference to the 1943 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette. “Coercing students to stand is a violation of their fundamental constitutional freedom of speech.”
“The phrase ‘under God’ in the Pledge of Allegiance marginalizes atheist students as second-class citizens,” said Roy Speckhardt, executive director of the American Humanist Association. “No student should be threatened with discipline merely for exercising her or his right to boycott a broken Pledge.”
If we are going to destroy our own Constitution, then why did we ever bother fighting foreign enemies to defend it? The group disrespecting the men and women who have died defending the Constitution is the Religious Right.
On Wednesday, the American Humanist Association’s Appignani Humanist Legal Center sent a letter to officials at the Ferndale Area School District in Johnstown, Pennsylvania. It can be read here (pdf).
The atheist student in Pennsylvania is far from alone, of course. On Thursday,
[T]he American Humanist Association’s Appignani Humanist Legal Center sent a letter to school officials at the San Jacinto Unified School District in San Jacinto, California, on behalf of the family of a student at Monte Vista Middle School. The letter concerns a seventh grade student who has been coerced by his teacher into standing for the Pledge of Allegiance when he attempted to exercise his right to remain seated during the Pledge. The letter also addresses a banner promoting prayer displayed in the student’s classroom.
The AHA relates a particularly egregious suppression of liberty at Monte Vista Middle School:
When the student, an atheist who objects to the phrase “under God,” attempted to sit quietly at his desk in an undisruptive manner during the Pledge exercise, his teacher berated him and erroneously informed him that the law required him to stand. The teacher then demanded that the student explain his reason for remaining seated, asking, “Do you hate America?” and making other statements meant to pressure him into standing.
Even though, as the AHA relates, “he right of students to opt out of Pledge participation was settled long ago by the United States Supreme Court in West Virginia State Bd. of Educ. v. Barnette, 319 U.S. 624 (1943).”
Yes, it’s been legal for our children to opt out since 1943. Of course that was before God was inserted into the pledge. As you are by now all well aware, there is no opting out of God. Just refer to the Old Testament to see what happens to those who try to exercise some genuine freedom of religion.
And then there is the School District of Lee County in Fort Myers, Florida, where, on Thursday, a student “was punished for exercising his constitutional right to remain seated during the school’s daily recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance.”
a senior at Cypress Lake High School, who identifies as an atheist and objects to the Pledge exercise on several grounds including its “under God” language, attempted to remain seated at his desk in a quiet and undisruptive manner during the recitation of the Pledge. However, his teacher berated him, accused him of being unpatriotic, and punished him with in-school suspension. When the student reported the matter to the school administration, he was still given the choice of participating in the Pledge exercise or being punished.
If we jump to 2012, there are 10 mentions of God – God-given this and God-given that. You won’t find the word service appearing in the same sense in 2012 as in 1960. The word “abortion” does not appear even once in 1960, yet appears no fewer than 19 times in 2012 and contraception twice. Likewise, the GOP did not deem “contraception” worthy of mention in 1960. It wasn’t that people weren’t using contraceptives in 1960. The GOP just didn’t care about it.
It is no coincidence that this dramatic increase in intolerance coincides with young people turning away from organized religion in droves. Suddenly, the conservative elements in Christianity see themselves facing not only a loss of privilege but also a loss of control of the society of which they pretend to be guardians. One has only to the shrill complaints of Tony Perkins and Pat Robertson to know how seriously they take this. They didn’t spend years infiltrating and stealing control of the Republican Party just to find out one day that God was irrelevant.
But this sort of nonsense, as demonstrated by Religious Right demagogue James Robison, which is designed to make God more relevant, only has the opposite effect:
Whatever political banner you may wave, you need the banner of the Lord and the principles of Almighty God or you are going nowhere but down. The way up is God. The way out is Divine Direction.
Must? There is no “must” in the First Amendment. The idea of free speech, the idea of freedom of religion, runs counter to the very idea of “must.”
What the Religious Right doesn’t understand is that it is these very sorts of repressive actions that drive young people away from religion and from the Republican Party (witness the delusions of Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback).
These young people see their friends being demonized and they are horrified. They know their friends are people, and that people deserve respect regardless of their beliefs. But the Religious Right’s self-defeating conception of free speech and religious freedom is that it is something only they themselves possess.
From our perspective, the fact that they feel they have to coerce people to go along with their idea of religion pretty much says all that needs to be said about their religion.
Hrafnkell Haraldsson, a social liberal with leanings toward centrist politics has degrees in history and philosophy. His interests include, besides history and philosophy, human rights issues, freedom of choice, religion, and the precarious dichotomy of freedom of speech and intolerance. He brings a slightly different perspective to his writing, being that he is neither a follower of an Abrahamic faith nor an atheist but a polytheist, a modern-day Heathen who follows the customs and traditions of his Norse ancestors. He maintains his own blog, A Heathen’s Day, which deals with Heathen and Pagan matters, and Mos Maiorum Foundation www.mosmaiorum.org, dedicated to ethnic religion. He has also contributed to NewsJunkiePost, GodsOwnParty and Pagan+Politics.