At dinner just a week before, we had talked about the mixing of religion and government. I told the kids that the Supreme Court had ruled, in Greece v. Galloway, that it was constitutionally permissible to open town meetings with blatantly sectarian Christian prayer.
Don’t get the wrong idea. The Supreme Court doesn’t usually come up at our kitchen table. Usually we talk about why children should eat their food without complaining, and, yes, Jesse, making a face is complaining. Or how, indeed, Noah, there is a difference between erupting into odd barking sounds and bursting into song—although, no, Jesse, that doesn’t mean it’s OK to sing at the table. After all, we might actually want to have a discussion sometime.
This was one of those rare discussion times. Jesse expressed amazement at the Greece v. Galloway decision and at the fact that “in God we trust” is on our money and that “under God” is in the Pledge of Allegiance. “We should totally get them to take ‘under God’ out of the Pledge,” he said, with a righteous gleam in his eye.
Noah replied, “Yeah, if you want to be a stereotypical atheist.”
Noah is 13; perhaps you deduced that from the eye-roll embedded in his comment. Perhaps you didn’t, since Justice Kennedy took pretty much the same tone in Greece v. Galloway, only without the excuse of adolescence. Generally speaking, Noah follows the fashion and keeps his cool; Jesse, age 11, follows his passion and loses his temper. They’d make a good buddy cop team if they didn’t spend so much time arguing about who gets to sit in the front.
Anyhow, the conversation stopped cold at that point, less because of the chilling effect of the teenager’s dismissive tone, and more because after-dinner TV had been ruled constitutionally permissible. Off they went.
I think it was the very next day that Massachusetts’ highest court decided that “under God” was just fine, thank you very much, since reciting the Pledge was voluntary.
Legally, the Pledge is, indeed, voluntary. No child can be compelled to say it, or punished if he doesn’t. But if your teacher asks you to stand and say the Pledge, and all the kids around you are standing and saying the Pledge, how voluntary can it be?
Still, when you are an atheist, you do have to decide whether and when you want to go all “stereotypical.” What prayers do you protest? What reflexive “God bless you”s or “Merry Christmas”es or “She’s in a better place now”s do you correct? When do you sue and when do you shrug?
Of course “under God” shouldn’t be in the Pledge, but I myself have never been moved to fight it, because, with or without God, the Pledge gives me the creeps. A loyalty oath? I was barely able to swear “allegiance” to my husband, and even then I reserved the right to disagree with him in public.
In the cafetorium, I stood, but didn’t say the Pledge, curious but not really concerned whether the woman next to me noticed. I watched as across the room my little boy put his hand on his heart, and said all the words he was expected (but not legally required) to say, with “under God,” obedience, and conformity for all.
Choosing to go along with the crowd is a useful skill, a sign of maturity, like lying (which he was also doing). And for him it may have been a wise calculation: he already stuck out enough, in middle-school terms, standing there in the Select Choir’s signature silky, crimson blouse (a garment that would have slain Noah as surely as the Shirt of Nessus slew Hercules). Jesse had simply learned to pick his battles. But that made me a little sad.
And it made me wonder how many other people in the room did not want to be murmuring along with the Pledge. Nonbelievers, free-thinkers, churchgoers who think church should be kept separate from state, foreign-born parents of the kids being honored. All of us facing the flag, making our personal calculations.
Who has endless energy to swim against the tide? Who, on an average school night, has the strength to stay seated when asked to stand?