I could not have had a more patriotic beginning. I was born on Flag Day (June 14) in 1942, during World War II, at Liberty Hospital in Philadelphia, birthplace of the nation and the flag purportedly designed by Betsy Ross. My first public speech was at a fourth grade Flag Day ceremony. I had been chosen to read my essay, “What the American Flag Means to Me.” I wrote about looking at the flag when “The Star-Spangled Banner” was sung at major league baseball games, hoping I would one day be a player on that field. I’m pretty sure my essay was picked because I happened to mention Flag Day was my birthday. Or maybe the other essays were even worse.
My views on patriotism in general and Flag Day in particular have changed considerably over the years. The anniversary of my birth has become a day when opportunistic politicians periodically attempt to take away freedoms for which our flag is supposed to stand. On my twelfth birthday, President Eisenhower signed into law the addition of “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance, saying, “From this day forward, the millions of our schoolchildren will daily proclaim in every city and town, every village and rural schoolhouse, the dedication of our nation and our people to the Almighty.”
President Eisenhower made no mention of the Constitution during this 1954 Flag Day ceremony, perhaps because the Constitution, which is dedicated to “We the People,” prohibits religious tests for public office and makes no mention of any almighties. This melding of God and country, turning a secular pledge into a religious one, only resulted in my feeling less patriotic when I no longer believed we were under any gods.
The Pledge is not simply a passive reference to religion. It calls on every child in public school to affirm that our country believes in God. No child should go to school each day and have the class declare that her religious beliefs are wrong in an exercise that portrays her family as less patriotic than God-believers.
We once had a fine pledge written in 1892, slightly modified in 1923, and recited without controversy for decades. So why in 1954 were the words “under God” added? Almost certainly because it was the time of the shameful McCarthy era, when pandering or fearful politicians wanted to distinguish themselves from the atheistic Communism of the Soviet Union by creating a holy Cold War. Of course, a government that feels entitled to tell its citizens that they are one nation under God can also feel entitled to tell its citizens that they are one nation under no gods, as the Soviet Union did. Clearly, our secular government began, and must remain, neutral about religion.
Continue reading at the Washington Post.