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The Lemon Pledge

07.11.2002 | CULTURE

My mother abandoned Catholicism to become a Jehovah's Witness when I was in fourth grade. It was all part of the punctuated equilibrium of my childhood--long static periods interrupted by spurts of frenzied change. I remember women in nice dresses stopping by on a regular basis, discussing the contents of pleather-bound volumes with her. They clicked around our kitchen in modest heels, slurped instant coffee, and flipped hurriedly through gilt-edged Bibles. Within days, or so it seemed to my young eyes, my brothers and I were getting dressed up in our best suits three days a week to go to the meetings. We soon had pleather-bound volumes of our own, full of frightening illustrations depicting the unspeakable debauchery of the Earth and fire raining down upon this cruel planet. The world was an evil place, the Witnesses said, but it would end soon and I would be okay when it did if I believed in God's word.

Among myriad other proscriptions, Witnesses don't pledge allegiance to the flag. The US is not singled out for such treatment; the Witnesses consider God their ultimate authority, and to swear fealty to any earthly government is to put a nation before a deity. But the pledge that American schoolchildren recite every day is particularly objectionable to them, because it implies a direct link between this nation's rulers and the Almighty. "One nation under God," in their eyes, says that America is guided by God more than any other country is, and to the Witnesses this notion is tantamount to blasphemy.

I found it very difficult to adhere to my newly-held beliefs at first. When my classmates rose for The Pledge, I placed my right hand on my heart and mouthed the words without pronouncing them out loud. The kids at the desks nearby looked none the wiser, though a sideways glance from any of them was enough to double my heart rate. As my lips formed to the republic, my mind constructed a silent prayer of apology to God, begging forgiveness and swearing that I would be more pious on my next nine year-old morning. Fellow Witnesses my age swore they did not recite The Pledge, not even in my mock fashion. But they went to distant schools many districts away, and I could not confirm their piety.

I lived in fear of discovery for quite a while, until I began to notice that my classmates were not exactly reverent about the ceremony. On the playground, all giggly with recess, kids recited verse that mimicked The Pledge--a slightly risqué version very popular circa 1985 that questioned Michael Jackson's sexuality with a word that rhymed with "flag." During the 1988 presidential campaign, my class was set to have mock elections. I said that I was going to vote for Michael Dukakis because George Bush, Sr. had made statements that favored mandatory Pledge recital. A friend looked at me funny, and I feared he would soon pounce on my unpatriotic hide. Instead, he said in a puzzled fashion, "Who cares about The Pledge?" It was, apparently, a non-issue.

When junior high began, students still stood and recited dutifully. By the time eighth grade rolled around, however, homeroom teachers found it difficult to maintain the unity of their charges. The Pledge would begin lustily and then fall off, until for which it stands was nothing more than a mess of murmurs and snickers. All the while, I made slow progress. One day I was able to stop mouthing the words. Soon after, the hand came down from over my heart and stayed down. If anyone saw this happening, no one said anything about it.

By the time high school grabbed us, I was ironically being more respectful toward the ceremony than many of my classmates. When the PA crackled with the signal that The Pledge would begin--usually led by a class president or shrill principal's office worker--I would stand up, arms at my sides, mouth shut. Around me, only a faithful few still whispered the words, as embarrassed by this Pavlovian response as they would be of toddler snapshots. Others copied homework, showed off drawings, snapped bras, and cackled at barely audible filthy jokes. Occasionally a teacher would force us all to participate, and some class clown would invariably add commentary to the end of the recitation: "Amen!" "Word!" "Peace!" Most of our instructors left us alone, using the homeroom period to review homework, calculate grades, read the local paper, or not think about teaching for a whole 30 seconds.

This did not take place in some liberal "discover your learning space" school environment. It was a modest public high school in Orange County, NY, full of the children of cops, firemen, and servicemen who lived at nearby Stewart Air Force Base. The town was solidly middle class and very religious in its own way, as evidenced by the traffic that snarled outside of St. Mary's every Sunday, and by the fact that the school lost a good portion of its student body on Days of Holy Obligation. It was, in other words, a place as near to Norman Rockwell as the 20th century could get, the kind of place where The Pledge should have been recited with apple pie earnestness. But there was little evidence that my classmates had much love for the words they grudgingly regurgitated on a daily basis.

Still, in my mind I constructed perfect arguments to support my beliefs about The Pledge, impeccable syllogisms backed with Bible verses. As my faith became accompanied and eventually supplanted by leftist political ideas, I buoyed my stance with points about the separation of church and state. I could cite the opinions of Thomases Paine and Jefferson, and hold forth on what many of our Theist founding fathers might have had to say about one nation under God.

But there was never any need. No one ever said a word to me about my abstention. The few times I was confronted by my peers, it was for one of the countless other reasons--most of them stupid--that teenagers invent to express their malice; nothing more political than the clothes I wore. Silently, I begged for someone to notice my defiance, to attack me in a fit of jingoistic fervor so that I could knock him or her down with the sheer weight of my evidence. Alas, my verbal arsenal went to waste, rusting in an atmosphere of indifference. In the eyes of my classmates, defying The Pledge was about as much an affront to their beliefs as not doing my trigonometry homework.

But it would be, as recent events have shown, a tremendous affront to their parents. Across the globe, the ceremonies that embody a society's beliefs are foisted almost exclusively on the young. There is no middle-age equivalent of the Bar Mitzvah or Confirmation, and I find this to be very telling of human nature. It is through their children that parents tend to display their ideals, even when they might not follow those ideals too diligently themselves. The Pledge is one example, chanted every morning by millions of schoolchildren as a paean to America and all it stands for. Though most adults feel this is a necessary ritual for their progeny, very few recite it on a daily basis themselves, and there has never been any serious attempt to enforce such a global recitation. Public outrage over the findings of the Ninth District Court of Appeals--which ruled that the "under God" phrase in The Pledge is unconstitutional--was virulent not because it endangered our nation's youth, but because it interfered with adults' ideas about what youth should be. It disrupted a collective mental image: row upon row of students reciting The Pledge dutifully, hands over their hearts, intoning liberty and justice for all. To kids, absent any uproar, the disappearance of the Pledge would probably mean very little. Very few kids, I imagine, feel very strongly about it one way or another, since kids don't feel very strongly about such abstractions as duty, honor, country. A young girl reading the Declaration of Independence to her brood of stuffed animals, as seen in a recent tourism commercial for Colonial Williamsburg, may be cute and heartwarming in a patriotic way, but I'm sure such precociously committed children are a rare breed.

I know because I was once such a child, albeit at the opposite end of the political/religious spectrum. When I refused to recite The Pledge, it was for ardently researched and heartfelt convictions. I looked to my classmates during each Pledge, hoping to find anyone just as dedicated to their cause as I, as eager to step into the ring as I was. Instead, I saw only spitballs, bloody knuckle fights, furtive math assignment completions, and the general ennui that surrounds those who have yet to own their world.

About the Author
Matthew Callan blogs daily at MSN Sports Filter. He has contributed to the NY Press, NPR, and "Excelsior You Fathead", a biography of Jean Shepherd. His Freezerbox piece "The Lemon Pledge" was given honorable mention in the 2003 edition of "Best American Non-Required Reading," and his fiction has been shortlisted for contests in Zoetrope: All-Story, Bomb magazine, and other publications.
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