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Taking the Pledge

Where is it going, where has it been?



Business must be slow at the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Otherwise, I can't imagine why they'd take up editing the Pledge of Allegiance. Sure, the phrase "under God" creates a theoretical separation-of-church-and-state problem. But it doesn't create any real-world problems. I'm pretty dang sure that no atheist or agnostic schoolchildren have run away and gotten baptized, head-sprinkled, holy-watered, incense-smoked, prayer-rugged, or otherwise holy-rolled while under the influence of the Pledge of Allegiance.

If any of you people know of an American schoolchild who has been brainwashed by the pledge, bring that child straight to me. I will cheerfully deprogram and teach him or her how to tune out unwanted school background noise. Believe me when I tell you I am an expert in this field.

I counted up my school days in my head, and, best I can figure, I was subjected to the pledge, complete with the "under God" part, about 2,100 times. That comes to about 18 hours of pledging. After all those pledge-hours, I can tell you this for sure: I am no more or less patriotic or religious than I would have been without it. The pledge did do one thing for me: It spared me from 18 hours of classroom instruction from the meanest, most assbackward humans who ever walked this earth, the now-retired-thank-God schoolteachers of Aiken County, South Carolina.

In 1954, when Congress added the words "under God" to the pledge, President Eisenhower wrote, "In this way we are reaffirming the transcendence of religious faith in America's heritage and future; in this way we shall constantly strengthen those spiritual weapons which forever will be our country's most powerful resource in peace or war."

Those are fine thoughts and words, but I think the real outcome was that America's schoolchildren got to delay picking up their pencils for one more second each day. Saying the pledge in school is a brainless activity. There are more misheard versions of the pledge than there are misheard Rolling Stones lyrics. Check these three samples:

"I led the pigeons to the flag."

"I pledge a lesion to the flag."

"And to the republic of Richard Stans, one naked individual, with liver tea and just this for all."

That last one is clearly pre-1954. In the now-disputed pledge, it would be "Richard Stans, one naked-under-God individual."

Creative modifications like these don't come from kids who are paying attention to the words. This stuff comes from kids who are dreaming their morning away, just trying to bluff their way through and avoid getting yelled at in the first five minutes of school. That was me. I knew I'd be in trouble before 3 o'clock. Might as well put off the conflicts until after recess anyhow.

Despite my bad attitude and worse teachers, I did learn how to look things up. In the last few days, I've learned a little about the pledge. It sprang from the pen of Francis Bellamy, the circulation manager of Boston's nationally published Youth's Companion magazine. The idea was to encourage schoolchildren to take the pledge in honor of the 1892 quadricentennial of Columbus' arrival in the New World. The magazine's owners printed up thousands of pledge leaflets and sent them out to public schools all over the country.

Well, don't you know, the magazine's owners were also in the flag-selling business. By the time the Columbus quadricentennial rolled around, the Youth's Companion folks had sold about 26,000 flags to public schools.

The original pledge was this: "I pledge allegiance to my flag and the republic for which it stands -- one nation indivisible -- with liberty and justice for all."

That's nice, isn't it? Simple, clean, and to the point. Downright poetic, complete with excellent cadence. Well, it wasn't long before the bloodless wonks muddled it. In 1923, some folks got worried that immigrants might use the "my flag" loophole to secretly pledge allegiance to some foreign flag. So "my flag" got changed to "the flag of the United States of America." Eleven extra syllables, when everybody knew good and well what "my flag" meant.

At some time -- I can't find out when -- somebody stuck another "to" in front of "the republic."

Finally, in 1954, Congress put in "under God." Not so much because 1954 was the peak of a religious Golden Age in America but to draw a line between us and the godless Commies.

Now, in 2002, a busybody federal court has a whole lot of perfectly good American citizens ready to pick up pitchforks and torches to get their two words back in the pledge. You judges, listen to me: Before you start poking at harmless but time-honored schoolhouse rituals, consider the rile-up factor. What children mumble during a time-killer at the beginning of the school day is not worth even one yelling match or fistfight. I'm amazed that I have to explain this.

Now, you riled-up people: The basic rules in this country are the same as they were two weeks ago. Your kids can think or say anything they want about the flag or God or anything else. Schoolteachers just can't make 'em say things they don't want to say. That's the way you want it, right?

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