by | Mar 28, 2004 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

The debate over the Pledge of Allegiance seems to be about everything except the Pledge of Allegiance.

The actual pledge, let’s face it, is recited by children, mumbled by teenagers and forgotten by adults.

Few people know its history. You ask the average American who wrote it, he’ll tell you George Washington.

Even fewer know where the now-controversial “under God” words came from. Most believe they were there from the beginning, and the “beginning” was around 1776.

All of which makes the truth rather jolting: that the pledge itself was written in the 1890s, for a magazine, by a Baptist minister who saw no reason to insert anything about God.

Or that the words “under God” were added by Congress, at the behest of a Michigan senator and representative, only 50 years ago, as an attack on communism, which it perceived as godless. Those were the days, remember, when humiliating movie makers in front of Sen. Joe McCarthy made some Americans feel safer.

We’re embarrassed by that era now, because we see it for what it was. We are not so clear on the pledge. We do not see the pledge for what it is.

Instead, the pledge is like that magic fountain in “The Lord of the Rings.” All you see in it are your darkest fears.

On one hand . . .

Religious groups see “under God” as integral. They see the snipping of those words as a snipping of their faith, a slippery slope that will lead to further erosion. They point to America’s Christian forefathers. They point to the huge majority of God-fearing U.S. citizens. They point to our money or our courts
— where the word God is used regularly.

To them, it doesn’t matter that the pledge is mumbled by half-awake children, or that few of those children, if they are honest, will admit to getting much from its rote repetition. (After all, even if your 8-year-old says he gets the
“under God” part, ask him to translate what “allegiance” really means.)

The truth is, this was more a religious nation when the words were not in the pledge. Logic would suggest no real harm would come from deletion.

But this is not about logic.

Take the other side, those who want the words removed. They see “under God” as religious coercion. They see clear violation of separation of church and state. They claim children are pressured into acknowledging a deity that they may not believe in and are ostracized if they don’t.

To them, it doesn’t matter that most kids couldn’t care less who says the pledge and who doesn’t. To them it doesn’t matter that many of us mouthed the words in grade school.

To them, it doesn’t matter that the number of children who might really be harmed by this 10-second morning ritual probably could fit in one classroom.

To them, this is about U.S. history, our freedom from religious pressure, and the slippery slope — there’s that phrase again — that might be sparked by an affirmation of God’s place in our words.

Much ado about nothing

What’s ironic is that both sides must exaggerate “under God” to make their points. The “take it out” group must act as if it’s a Holy Communion and a Bar Mitzvah rolled into one. The “leave it in” group must act as if the phrase is so secular it doesn’t even constitute religion.

And meanwhile, we’ll spend more time fighting over this than actually getting our kids educated.

But that’s the truth of America today. We would rather argue the theoretical than face the practical. We’ll have congressional hearings on Janet Jackson’s breast, but send our kids to school in tight, revealing clothing. We’ll argue over gays marrying but ignore divorces up and down our block. We’ll scream over an assault weapons ban, but buy video games to commit countless virtual murders.

The truth is, this “under God” thing wasn’t much of an issue until someone made it an issue. But our knees are jerky. We fear our slippery slopes. And now the only folks who aren’t worked up over the pledge are the kids who actually say it.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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