The Ethical Dilemma: Should I Tell My Daughter to Skip “Under God” in the Pledge?

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God in Public School: I moved back to my wonderful small hometown with my husband and four-year-old daughter. We do not believe in God, but only close friends and family know this. I do not pretend to be religious or spiritual, but most people assume that we are since that is the norm for people here. We’ve asked family not to take our daughter to church or give Bible lessons because it is very important that she discover her belief system (or lack of) on her own.

Now she is in preschool and is reciting the Pledge of Allegiance. I did not think much of it, until I heard her say the phrase “under God.” This made me very uncomfortable. Should I talk to my child about being silent during those words, like I am when I recite the pledge? She isn’t asking about God or religion yet. I always thought we’d discuss religion when she was curious about it. As much as I’d like to discuss with the school, I think it will cause friction and stress between my community and family.

The school also holds a Christmas program every year that has mostly religious songs. Is there any way to discuss removing religious songs from the program, without becoming the local Grinch (or worse)? This is a public school.

—Worried Mom

Dear Worried,

I’m afraid there’s no way to raise these issues without risking being called a Grinch or worse. So you have to decide whether it’s more important to you and your daughter to avoid making waves, or if you would be willing to incur some discomfort and disapproval by taking corrective action.

If you do decide to act, you can enlist the legal aid of the American Humanist Association or other organizations like the Freedom From Religion Foundation, your local American Civil Liberties Union, or Americans United for Separation of Church and State. They can help you with a strategy and can send letters citing the applicable laws and precedents, such as cases in which courts have ruled that there must either be no religious content in the “holiday” program, or additional faiths and non-faiths must also be represented.

As for the US Pledge of Allegiance, there are ongoing efforts to expunge the words “under God,” which was added during the McCarthy era to flush out the dreaded communists among us, but so far the religious lobby is holding firm. My parents predate that addition, so from an early age I noticed how they stumbled right past it and then mumbled indignantly, “Who changed the words?” You can explain to your daughter the history of the insertion and how you choose not to recite it, and let her decide what she wants to do. You can remain silent for a couple beats, insert your own words (i.e., “One Nation, under good”), or talk over “under God” by proceeding straight to “with liberty and justice for all.” I have a problem with requiring people, including school children, to recite the Pledge with or without “under God,” but that’s another battle—one with the law on my side but a lot of communities on the other side. The American Humanist Association’s Boycott the Pledge Campaign has great resources for students who decide to sit out the Pledge—including a downloadable card that can be given to teachers if students are punished for exercising their rights.

Another consideration is how many other people in your school might, like you, be silently enduring the intrusive godliness. You may not be alone or even a minor minority. By voicing these issues—politely and reasonably, emphasizing the Constitutional boundaries between religion and public education—you may find yourself sparking a movement that’s just been itching for someone to make the first move.

Even if you decide to remain silent for now, remember that this is the town where you were raised, and you grew up superstition-free. With you as her parent, your daughter is particularly likely to grow up with a brain that is clean, not washed.