"Under God", American Flag, Atheism, Crying babies, flags, graduation, Individual Will, letter, Lord's Prayer, On Writing, peer pressure, Public speech, Robin Williams, Separation of Church and State, The Pledge of Allegiance
As you’ve seen in some of the photos I’ve shared with you, behind my writing desk is an American flag. This is not because I’m from Texas, this is not because I come from a predominantly Republican household, it’s not even because I eat, drink, sleep, and live AmericaAmericaAmerica. The actual reason that flag is there was because it served as the door to my original closet/writing space when I was just starting out as a writer.
I had read Stephen King’s On Writing and, I would really recommend it to you, if you want to be a writer or teach writing like you mentioned. I had read the book and absorbed two lessons from the book. The first was that the only way to become stronger as a writer was to write everyday and try to get at least 3000 words a day. That just about killed me. The other lesson was to write somewhere private, where you could be completely alone with your mind, your thoughts, and whatever inspiration led you to write in the first place. Now in the house I grew up in that was little bit difficult because my parents had built their own house and there were a couple of rooms that didn’t have doors. It wasn’t that we were lazy, it’s just one of those things that didn’t get done right away and you eventually learn to live with it. Fortunately I had a door to my bedroom, but that room was too large. So, I retreated to my closet, but the open doorway was too much temptation. I needed something to block out the world. As best I can remember I was watching the movie Patton with my Dad and that great big American Flag just spoke to me and so I began asking for a flag. A few weeks later I received the cloth flag and it’s been with me ever since. There were so many afternoons when I would be writing and I would look up and the sunlight would shine through the red white and blue. I imagined all the boys that had died holding that flag and their memories and the weight of the symbol would take me.
Enough pathos, back to my godlessness.
I got your letter and the answer to the first part is that I have to watch it again first. Trust me, give me a few days, maybe a week and I’ll have a review for the Dead Poet’s Society up. I love Robin Williams too and it’s about damn time I worship him on this blog. Did I write worship? I meant revere. CRAP!
Anyway, as per the second request my flag story is relevant because you asked me about prayer in public.
You’re right it is a touchy subject, and to be honest, whenever people bring it up in conversation I mostly just nod my head and smile because I don’t want to be rude; in fact I’m almost always doing this. I dream one day of being the asshole atheist that confirms somebody’s bias that all atheists are assholes trying to stomp out their liberty and rip their god away from them. But the topic is interesting and as always I have a story to help the conversation flow a little better.
About a year ago I graduated with my Bachelor’s degree from the University of Texas at Tyler. It’s a wonderful little school and I’ve developed there a real fellowship with the teachers, both in my own department and also in several others. I graduated Magna Cum Laude (now I’m just showing off, but I was proud of myself dammit) with a degree in English. Now there were several things wrong with my actual graduation service. For starters I didn’t want to be there, I hate formal ceremonies, but my wife was graduating too and my family was going whether I liked it or not. In the second part there were more crying babies per capita than I have ever experienced in my entire life. I don’t even remember what the speaker said, I don’t even remember who the speaker was. But what struck me the most about the whole affair was that before the ceremony began, or before we had spoken the Pledge of Allegiance, a representative from one of the student christian organizations was called up to say a prayer.
Now B——I know your immediate response, you’re unfailingly apologetic, it’s not a bad thing. You’ll say, well who cares, it was just a graduation, and you were in East Texas did you expect anything different? The fact of the matter was, yes, I did expect something different. My conflict was not that the prayer was spoken because I was an atheist, my conflict was they were performing a prayer in a public institution. Since our school falls within the UT system we are not a private school, therefore we cannot dictate our own religious standing. Having a prayer spoken at the beginning of the service, and then a second time before we ended, was a violation public policy governing the separation of church and state. I was embarrassed, for while there were many Christians in the audience there were also jews, muslims, hindus, and at least, one atheist.
I recall we were asked to bow our heads, and I’m not trying to sound heroic when I write this, but out of the hundred to a thousand people in the great hall, I alone did not bow my head. Let me at least have that moment of integrity till the day I die.
Now this is the part where I’m sure I’ll be further crucified as a heretic, for following the prayer was the Pledge of Allegiance. In East Texas once the prayer has been spoken there is no such great activity as is Pledging Allegiance, though that may be because there is the opportunity to say two words that blend government and religion so organically and philosophically. We all turned to the flag hanging limp on the most-likely-not-actual-wood –pole, and recited the Pledge. I recited the Pledge, leaving out the words “Under God.” I can’t confess to you B—— how terrified I was by doing this. For despite my shameless heroic rhetoric, not praying, not bowing your head, and not saying those two little words in the Pledge is akin to tapping an old land mine with your foot. You’re pretty sure it won’t explode, but there’s still that one chance…
Still, this is the point B——–, the Pledge of Allegiance and the Prayer (for the Episcopal church, the church I grew up in, it’s the Lord Prayer or one of the various creeds, for everyone else it’s free verse), at least in East Texas, are two passages every individual is expected to memorize and recite daily, or else temptation and liberalism spring eternal malevolence. Everyday in school we prayed. Everyday in school we recited the Pledge of Allegiance. While I have, since my understanding of myself as an atheist, refused to pray, no matter how long I have lived I love reciting the Pledge.
This may be in part because I am a patriot. While I do detest the idea of nationalism, like religion it has the capacity to justify murder and chaos for the sake of “national liberty,” I do respect the fact that I do possess agency in no small part because of the sacrifice of brave men and women before me who gave their lives, and in some cases more, so that I could write and express my opinion and lifestyle without fear of physical or legal retribution. I believe in America, to quote The Godfather, because it has produced great authors, great thinkers and inventors, outstanding military leaders, some wonderful Presidents, and an idea of what life can be. But I won’t deny there are plenty of problems as well. Our national guilt is manifested in the legacy of genocide that is the expansion of the West and the slaughter of the Native Americans, and Slavery will hang from our necks until the end of time.
What many people don’t realize, or else they do and try to deny they know it, is that the phrase “under god” was an addition to the Pledge of Allegiance. When the Pledge first existed the line wasn’t there at all. It wasn’t until the 1950s, you know what, I was averse to doing this but I’ll go ahead. USHistory.Org has a wonderful synopsis of the history of the Pledge and I’ll just copy it for you so you can get an idea:
The Pledge of Allegiance was written in August 1892 by the socialist minister Francis Bellamy (1855-1931). It was originally published in The Youth’s Companion on September 8, 1892. Bellamy had hoped that the pledge would be used by citizens in any country.
In its original form it read:
“I pledge allegiance to my Flag and the Republic for which it stands, one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”
In 1923, the words, “the Flag of the United States of America” were added. At this time it read:
“I pledge allegiance to the Flag of the United States of America and to the Republic for which it stands, one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”
In 1954, in response to the Communist threat of the times, President Eisenhower encouraged Congress to add the words “under God,” creating the 31-word pledge we say today. Bellamy’s daughter objected to this alteration. Today it reads:
“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.”
Section 4 of the Flag Code states:
The Pledge of Allegiance to the Flag: “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.”, should be rendered by standing at attention facing the flag with the right hand over the heart. When not in uniform men should remove any non-religious headdress with their right hand and hold it at the left shoulder, the hand being over the heart. Persons in uniform should remain silent, face the flag, and render the military salute.”
The original Bellamy salute, first described in 1892 by Francis Bellamy, who authored the original Pledge, began with a military salute, and after reciting the words “to the flag,” the arm was extended toward the flag.
At a signal from the Principal the pupils, in ordered ranks, hands to the side, face the Flag. Another signal is given; every pupil gives the flag the military salute — right hand lifted, palm downward, to a line with the forehead and close to it. Standing thus, all repeat together, slowly, “I pledge allegiance to my Flag and the Republic for which it stands; one Nation indivisible, with Liberty and Justice for all.” At the words, “to my Flag,” the right hand is extended gracefully, palm upward, toward the Flag, and remains in this gesture till the end of the affirmation; whereupon all hands immediately drop to the side.
The Youth’s Companion, 1892
Shortly thereafter, the pledge was begun with the right hand over the heart, and after reciting “to the Flag,” the arm was extended toward the Flag, palm-down.
In World War II, the salute too much resembled the Nazi salute, so it was changed to keep the right hand over the heart throughout.
I understand that I exist in a nation largely populated by Christians, but majority does not indicate unanimous opinion. I may just be an asshole atheist, a godless heathen, but I believe it’s inappropriate in a public setting to assume that everyone will be copasetic (marvy fab ya dig) with your particular religious beliefs. The conflict with leading a Christian prayer is that it leaves too many opportunities available for alienation. Some Catholics may object to a Baptist reading the prayer. An Episcopal, an offshoot of Anglicanism which is itself a veiled clone of Catholicism, may object to the fact that the prayer uttered was not the Lord’s Prayer or the Nicene Creed or the Apostles creed. This is an argument often employed by amateur atheists (as if we’re some sort of sports team, go ATOMS!) and while it’s valid, I feel it misses a more important aspect of the argument.
It is the assumption that everyone in the room will agree to the prayer that is most insulting and humiliating.
Now B——I know your next point. You’ll argue couldn’t the same be said of the Pledge?
The individuals graduating that day were American citizens, as were their families. The Pledge of Allegiance is exactly what it says it is: a pledge. It is a promise to the government and the philosophical idea of the United states, that you promise your loyalty (allegiance) in times of prosperity as well as periods of conflict. It is a dedication to your country that you will work always to aid your nation and make sure that when your life is done, the country you leave behind is one of liberty for everyone. I know I’m sounding like a fucking NPR special B——-, but let me finish on this last point. It is suspect that we force children to take the Pledge before they are emotionally and intellectually ready to take it, because when they say the Pledge as children they cannot comprehend the symbolic gesture they are making. I doubt many people, when they say the pledge, understand fully the weight of the words coming out of their mouth. For them it’s just something you say without thinking; the routine is numbing and eliminates the significance of the act, and thus many people would simply say there’s no point or difference between saying a pledge or saying a prayer.
I love my country and so I was willing to say (most of) the Pledge on the day graduated. I was willing to promise my loyalty to this country. However I was not willing to promise my loyalty to a god that I don’t believe in.
The words we speak aloud possess more symbolic weight than the ones we have in our head, for they are entirely alone and have promised nothing. It’s the little choices B——, the words we speak aloud that matter more than the words we think, because they have real implications about who we are as citizens and individuals.
If you get the chance, to take part of your graduation ceremony, even if there are crying babies, it is pretty fun to make that walk across the stage.
Sincerely, yours in the best of confidence and support,
Joshua “Jammer” Smith
P.S. I’ve included a link to the USHistory.org page in case you want to make sure I’m not blowing smoke.