In the 1989 film National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, Aunt Bethany (played by Mae Questal), the aunt of family patriarch Clark Griswold (Chevy Chase), travels to the Griswold family home in Chicago to celebrate Christmas. Clark asks Aunt Bethany, whose hearing is failing, to say grace before they carve the turkey, which has been overcooked to the point of dehydration.
Bethany obliges and launches into a spirited blessing: I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America and to the republic for which it stands, one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.
Amen, the Griswolds proclaim, nodding their heads and suppressing laughter.
On Wednesday, June 26, 2002, a federal appeals court in California ruled that reciting the familiar pledge in schools is an unconstitutional endorsement of religion as a result of a 1954 bill passed by Congress, which inserted the words under God into the pledge.
The Pledge, the court said, as currently codified, is an impermissible government endorsement of religion because it sends a message to unbelievers that they are outsiders, not full members of the political community, and an accompanying message to adherents that they are insiders, favored members of the political community.’
As news of the decision spread, members of Congress gathered to recite the pledge on the steps of the Capitol, and Congressional leaders lambasted the decision. So too did the White House.
Michael Nedow, the California atheist who filed the suit, told CNN he believed the Constitution has been upheld.
All indications suggest that the court’s decision, issued by a three-member panel, will be overturned quickly by the full appeals court or by the United States Supreme Court, which has historically supported the pledge.
Until then, I think we all ought to thank Michael Nedow. I speak as a 24-year-old who mindlessly recited the Pledge of Allegiance in public schools in suburban Chicago from kindergarten to the eighth grade, so I appreciate his objections.
I do not agree with Mr. Nedow, but that’s immaterial. What matters is that his objections are the foundation of the democracy we enjoy, the one represented by the flag to which we regularly pledge our allegiance.
Switching gears for a moment, I recall learning that a good friend was preparing for confirmation in the church during her four years at Georgetown University. Did you convert? I asked her, probably tactlessly, wondering why she had not been confirmed years earlier with all the other eighth graders.
She told me she had grown up Catholic, but that when she turned 14 she did not feel she was ready to be confirmed. So she waited until she could make the decision to become a participating member of the church.
My brief conversation with her in the darkness outside Dahlgren Chapel on Georgetown’s campus brought back thoughts of my own confirmation. It was miserable. I had drawn the short straw and was sitting on the aisle, particularly susceptible to those tricky questions the bishop was rumored to ask sometimes about the Commandments and the Beatitudes and other fuzzy things I had not totally memorized. I was scared of the potential embarrassment of botching one of these answers, so I sat rigid, hands folded carefully in my lap, hoping to look pious enough to be passed by. My strategy worked. The bishop never asked me anything. I was anointed, confirmed, welcomed into the church, and afterward I went home, where my parents had a party for me.
My confirmation, though ceremonially symbolic, did not mark a meaningful change in my life or in my participation in the church. For much of my life, my participation in the church was like Aunt Bethany’s Pledge of Allegiance: reflexive, ritualistic and maybe even mindless.
I had the pledge memorized long before my own phone number. Yet it was not until last Sept. 12, while driving to work just before sunrise, that I passed under a large flag that had been tied carefully to an overpass on the expressway. Chills ran down my spine, and I felt for the first time a visceral allegiance to the flag, an allegiance created by fear of what might happen, anger and sorrow for what had already happened, pride in the ideals of freedom and love for this country, its people and the people of other countries who had expressed their outrage and sorrow.
We can so easily let our pledges and oaths become meaningless. So while the judges decide who can say what and where, I would like to thank Michael Nedow. His challenge has made me (and perhaps you) think about this pledge of ours, what it means. He managed to get the members of Congress to agree on something, and to get the senators to pass a resolution in one day. But more important, maybe he has made some of the students in California and the other eight states covered by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit think about their pledge. Maybe somewhere a handful of students will decide it is so important that they will come to school early to recite the pledge on their own, even if someday they are no longer allowed to do it in the classroom.
This, I believe, will be better than having hundreds of thousands of young people recite the pledge each day without giving thought to the ideals and beliefs to which they will pledge allegianceand why.