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FIRST-PERSON: The pledge is liberating

ATLANTA (BP)–In September I found it ironic that my high school students were in the middle of reciting the Pledge of Allegiance just about the time a jet slammed into one of the twin towers at the World Trade Center.

From the doorway, I watched as one young man directly in front of me appeared rigid with responsibility. In an ROTC uniform and standing at attention, he barely blinked while staring passionately at the flag suspended just to the right of the white-board at the front of the classroom.

I caught another student trying to stuff the last of a donut into her mouth. Mouth full, she nonetheless stopped munching for a few minutes while dutifully holding a sticky hand away from her toddler sized T-shirt in a semblance of a salute.

Other students, caught in the middle of greeting arriving classmates, stopped chatting long enough to stand facing the flag while reciting the pledge along with the voice booming over the school’s loudspeaker.

And there, in the midst of it, stood our lone conscientious objector, a student whose religious beliefs she said forbade her from saying the pledge. A sweet smile on her face, she stood quietly waiting for the rest of us to finish before entering our school’s “moment of silence.”

It is because of this freedom that Sept. 11 occurred.

The Pledge of Allegiance helps children who are not yet adults learn that to be American means a sense of patriotic duty to insure the continuance of freedoms many take for granted. It is a freedom intended not to take away rights, but to maintain rights.

The student in our classroom was not made to feel “bad” because she did not conform. Instead, she felt empowered and impressed that she could, of her own volition, stand firm for her views. She was not compelled to pledge allegiance to the flag, or to even stand as we did, but she was granted the freedom, as were the others, to participate or not, as long as she did not distract from the ceremony.

What a freeing idea for America’s children.

The California-based Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals that ruled against the Pledge of Allegiance last month would do well to remember that if children are to be taught civility in our diverse nation, they need to understand from whence this civility and patriotism stems.

If there is nothing to believe in, no God or higher being to answer to, then all is for naught and it doesn’t matter whether one has rights. To do what is “right” would be an antithesis to rational thought because there would be no right or wrong. If there is no God and there is no hereafter, then what does the Pledge of Allegiance or any reference to God matter? If the child feels bad, what does it matter? What does anything mean or matter?

On the other hand, if our nation is “under God,” then we have a responsibility to teach them a sense of destiny and of the supernatural, to teach them, even in our ceremonies and traditions, that it is good to accommodate. And if there are some who do not want to join in, then it is their prerogative. But just as no one should be forced to participate, those who want to express their belief should not be hindered either.

The events of Sept. 11 should serve as a reminder to us of our destiny as America and should force us to ask ourselves what so offends others. I doubt if it is America’s crass commercialism. I sincerely don’t think it is the immorality that abounds. I find it hard to believe it is our track record in solving violence and crime. If not all that, then what?

Maybe, just maybe, there are those offended by our perfect Savior who unconditionally accepts each one by his grace. Perhaps it is the very idea that America calls itself a nation “under God” that offends and convicts. After all, it is only in our nation “under God” that citizens are typically afforded the greatest historical freedoms anywhere on the planet.

Recognizing this freedom comes with a cost. As Americans look to the flag with allegiance and in doing so acknowledge America’s most basic alliance, let’s not forget the pledge’s place in promoting diversity. Children learn lessons in the least likely circumstances. As the rhetoric over the pledge flies this season, let’s not forget to take time to remember that whether one joins in or not, how we respond and how we explain this recent court action to children also is of key significance.
Hannigan is a national correspondent for Baptist Press who teaches English and journalism in the Atlanta area.

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  • Joni B. Hannigan