Thursday, March 25, 2010

The Pledge of Allegiance, a Patriotic, Religious Test

     On a soupy August morning in 1980, I received my first lesson concerning the separation of church and state.

     After ringing the morning school bell, Sr. Mary Buttcrack wobbled into the classroom and peered down at us, her new first grade class, with dark, squinty eyes and barked for us to stand up. Frightened of the cello-shaped nun, whose Michelin-man-like rolls did not benefit from the post-Vatican II nuns' emancipation from the religious habit, we rose from our faux wooden desks and obeyed her orders. We turned our sweaty, sticky bodies toward the metal statue of a tortured, bleeding, dead body hanging on a cross, made the Sign of the Cross over our hearts, prayed the Our Father, and again made the Sign of the Cross.

     Without a pause, we were instructed to put our "crossing" hand over our hearts, to turn ten degrees to face the crucifix-adjacent U.S. flag, and recite the Pledge of Allegiance. Upon finishing, most of our pink hands made the Sign of the Cross again, thinking it necessary in order to end the prayer. Sister chastised us for this apparent mistake and threatened us with something like an eternity in hell or taking away our recesses, where we’d have to sit in the un-air-conditioned room with her ring-around-the-armpits and gelatinous, spoiled-cottage-cheese biceps.  I wasn’t sure which was worse.

     In middle school, my depreciation for the Pledge increased. Years of Catholic school had increased my religious "maturity," and now, the Pledge seemed a violation of the First Commandment: "I am the Lord your God [sic], you shall not place strange gods before me." Devout Catholic altar boy that I was, swearing allegiance to a mass of red, white, and blue fabric seemed idolatrous, if not at the level of worshiping Baal, then at least at the level of the golden calf.  Was Moses to return, I imagined him decapitating our principal, the mushroom-shaped-and-smelling Sr. Mary Mushroom, with one swing of a stone tablet and then making us heathen flag-worshipers chew off and swallow bites of Old Glory until our gums bled and our bowels exploded.

     My allegiance was to God [sic] alone, not to some nation or its flag, but Christians everywhere at sporting events, student council meetings, Boy Scouts, and governmental gatherings said the Pledge. They swore allegiance to a false god and then proclaimed their uncompromising devotion to Jesus Christ in the next breath. I continued to say the Pledge, but refused to put my hand on my heart, which belonged to Christ alone. During the Pledge, my hand was over my xiphoid process. This served the double purpose of protecting me both from God’s [sic] wrath and also the random fist of a passerby delivering a xiphoid-process-shattering blow to my lower sternum thus sending the xiphoid-shard into one of my essential organs and killing me on the spot. I thought of such things in those days, thanks to learning about the dangers of CPR in science class, but there was really nothing to worry about. If I died, God [sic] would forgive me for worshipping the flag, because I didn’t swear on my heart.

     After the fall of the Berlin Wall and the George H.W. Bush led invasion of Iraq, I quit saying the Pledge. I was in high school, and after a handful of years spent in the public schools where Catholics weren't the majority, my religious beliefs were emboldened. By the time I turned eighteen and registered with the Selective Service, I was prepared for the possible reinstitution of the draft, for in the wake of the Soviet's demise, America had a new enemies and a new cause: Islamic Iran and Iraq and the securing of fossil fuels. As a conscientious objector, I offered no allegiance to a country that would declare wars and kill innocent women and children so that we could drive cars that raped our planet's atmosphere. My New Testament God [sic], my peace-loving Jesus, would not approve of such reprehensible actions, and so I stood during the Pledge with my hand on my xiphoid process and mouthed the words. No one took notice of my silent dissent.

     As a priest in post-9/11 America, I found the Pledge even more infuriating. Catholic adults were still being lead in successive recitations of the OurFatherPledgeofAllegiance at Knights of Columbus meetings. The crucifix and the flag were still side by side, both demanding the faithfulness of our grade-school hearts. Gone were the days of blending, I was the priest, the educated Master of Divinity, and the one with the power of the Office of the Priesthood on my side.

     A man, I stood silently, hands in the pockets of my black clerics, and refused to say the Pledge. I received my parishioners' suspicious glares, which were followed by judgmental comments masked with humor. "You some kind of liberal, Father?" "Don't you support the troops in Iraq? Heh. Heh. Heh." "Do ya love yer country, or are ya a some kindda Bin Laden, Dixie Chicks lover?"

     Yes, that was it. I was a terrorist masking as an Iowa-corn-fed Catholic priest, and an atheist, Commie homo, too.
     Now that I am an atheist homo (The Commie distinction is FOX News-relative.), the Pledge continues to assault and insult my sensibilities. In a nation where we have freedom of speech, I don't observe a need for the Pledge's patriotic test before basketball games and beauty pageants. There's no need for a test to gauge who does and doesn't proclaim the McCarthy-era's paranoid addendum to the Pledge, "under God [sic], ." This “pledge” is a religious test that violates my freedom to choose between the extinct gods of the ancients or the various gods of the present. I also have the freedom to use my rational mind, to follow lead and history of scientific progress, and to choose not to believe in any god. This is my choice. I have blossomed into an atheist.
     In early March, the Religious Right won a huge battle in federal court.  A divided federal appeals court, reversed an earlier ruling in a 2-1 decision.

     The Los Angeles Times reports:
     A divided federal appeals court Thursday reversed itself, ruling that the Pledge of Allegiance doesn’t violate the constitutional prohibition against state-mandated religious exercise even though it contains the phrase “one nation under God [sic].”
     The U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruling in 2002, which deemed that requiring students to recite the pledge violated their rights to be free of religious indoctrination by the government, was one of the most controversial to come out of the court that is second only to the U.S. Supreme Court in its power to determine law for nine Western states and two Pacific territories.
     The appeals court’s earlier decision had been reviewed by the Supreme Court in 2004, but the justices dodged the constitutional question on procedural grounds, throwing out the lawsuit brought by a Sacramento atheist and leaving intact the wording of the patriotic declaration.
     In "the land of the free," one is no longer free of the religious test that was added to the Pledge just fifty-six years ago.  The Pledge, like the scriptures, has been redacted over the years since it was first written in 1892, each generation's political/religious turmoil leaving a mark.  Bruce Ramsey of The Seattle Times provides a brief history of the Pledge:
    Several years ago an Oregon academic, Richard Ellis, wrote a history of the Pledge, which I reviewed in the Times. In the book he says each big boost for the Pledge, or change in it, came at a time when Americans were in fear of foreign influence. The Pledge was written in 1892, when Americans worried about the tide of immigrants diluting American culture and ideals, and the fading of patriotism from the Civil War. The Pledge was institutionalized in World War I, when patriotism was enforced. The first state to require the Pledge was Washington, which passed the law in January 1919, the month of the Communist-influenced Seattle General Strike. The first change in the Pledge's wording--from "my flag" to "the flag of the United States of America"--came in the early 1920s, around the time that immigration was stopped. And the phrase "under God [sic]" was added in 1954, at the end of the trials of Communist spies.
      In 2010, the era of the Tea Party, Glenn Beck, Sarah Palin, and calls from southern states for secession because a crazed minority of of U.S. citizens believes that our nation's first black president is a socialist, commie-loving, Islamic terrorist, we have a conservative court ruling that the McCarthy era addendum "under God [sic]" is not a religious prayer or test.  Sister Mary Buttcrack, Stalin of North Catholic School, would be proud.
     I, for one, will not remain on the grade-school playground. I will cross neither my heart nor my xiphoid process. I will utilize my constitutional rights of freedom of speech and freedom of/from religion. When the Pledge of Allegiance is forced upon me in secular situations, instead of "under God [sic]," I will proclaim as loudly as I can: "I don't believe in god." This is one religious test that I am proud to fail.

     After thirty years, I've finally passed the first grade.


     To hear an interview of  Michael Newdow, who filed the lawsuit challenging the religious redaction of the Pledge, click here. (It's the March 20th podcast.)

     Here are a few quotes from the Associated Press via WTOP, article by Terence Chea.
     Judge Stephen Reinhardt, who was part of the three-judge panel that ruled in Newdow's favor eight years ago, wrote a 123-page dissent to the 60-page majority opinion. "Under no sound legal analysis adhering to binding Supreme Court precedent could this court uphold state-directed, teacher-led, daily recitation of the 'under God [sic]' version of the Pledge of Allegiance by children in public schools," wrote Reinhardt, who was appointed by President Jimmy Carter in 1980.
     "The whole argument that 'under God [sic]' wasn't placed into the pledge for religious purposes is bogus," Newdow [who brought the case] said. "I hope people recognize this is not against God [sic] or people who believe in God [sic]. It's about the government not treating people equally on the basis of their lawful religious views."
     Go to Newdow's website for more information.

Teen Derrick Martin Thrown out by Parents for Asking a Boy to Prom

     What would Jesus do to a boy, who wanted to bring his boyfriend to prom?  

     Apparently, the all-loving one would throw his own child out on the street.

     On Top Magazine reports:
    The parents of 18-year-old Derrick Martin, the Georgia student who fought to bring his boyfriend to the prom, have kicked him out of the house, the Macon, Georgia-based website reported. Martin requested approval to bring his same-sex date to the April 17 prom dance in January. Bleckley County High School requires approval in advance for bringing a prom date that is not a student enrolled in the county.  The school's decision to allow Martin to bring his boyfriend to the prom and the ensuing media attention resulted in Martin's ouster from his house. He is reportedly staying with a friend.
     Click here to join the Facebook group: "We Support Derrick Martin Taking His Boyfriend to Prom."

     The school board is allowing Martin to attend with his boyfriend, but not because they endorses his "practice" or "lifestyle."  (See embedded video below.)

     I hate that kind of language. I have a life, not a lifestyle.  I don't practice homosexuality, unless every straight person out there "practices" their heterosexuality.  This type of language is homophobic and gaycist.  It carries a demeaning religious subtext and wreaks of outdated and scientifically disproved psychobabble.    

      US District Court judge ruled yesterday that an Itawamba County, Mississippi, school board infringed upon a high school student Constance McMillan's First Amendment rights when it denied her attendance to the prom because she wanted to wear a tuxedo and attend with her girlfriend.

Here's a video of Derrick Martin speaking about his experience.