Bobby raised his hand and asked his teacher, Mrs. Miller, ‘Is God the same as the sun?’
It was an unusual year, 1954. The U.S. Supreme Court held that separate schooling for blacks and whites was unequal for blacks, mostly because the quality of segregated education seriously disadvantaged black children. Sen. Joseph McCarthy was censured by the United States Senate for his Communist witch hunts. French colonialism in Vietnam was defeated in the battle of Dien Bien Phu. Elvis Presley cut his first commercial record.
But none of these things made much impact on 10-year old Bobby LeFlore Lewis, if he even heard about them. What did affect him was a small action by Congress that seemed just strange to him. Bobby’s teacher told his class that now there were two new words that he had to recite when saying the Pledge of Allegiance. Congress had added the words “under God” to the Pledge, placed between “one nation” and “indivisible.”
Bobby hadn’t thought much about the Pledge before, but this addition was not only hard to remember, it caused him to have questions that had not occurred to him before.
Bobby’s maternal grandmother was Choctaw, which made Bobby one-quarter Choctaw. She had been born in Louisiana and had told Bobby stories about how the sun was the center of the universe, revered as the greatest power in the world by Choctaws. Bobby believed that sunny days were special, days when anything could be accomplished. So it didn’t help that Bobby’s teacher broke the news about the change in the Pledge on a day dreary with rain and thunderstorms.
Bobby raised his hand and asked his teacher, Mrs. Miller, “Is God the same as the sun?”
She recoiled at the thought. ‘We all know that God is the creator of the universe.’
She recoiled at the thought. “Bobby, why would you ask such a question? “We all know that God is the creator of the universe. That’s what ‘under God’ means. He created this great country, and we worship him for allowing us to live here and be free.”
Hesitantly, Bobby said, “Well, my grandmother told me the sun is the Great Power in the world that gives us life.”
Mrs. Miller asked, “Don’t you believe in God?”
Bobby was stymied. He had heard about God from other kids, but hadn’t given it much thought. Finally, he said, “Well, if God is the sun, I guess I believe in God.” But Mrs. Miller responded by saying, “No. God is not the sun. God is God.”
That confused Bobby even more, but before he could say anything else, Suzie Potter spoke up and told Mrs. Miller that her parents believed that governments are controlled by the Devil, and that God doesn’t approve anything that a government does, and that includes the United States government. If the government says that we have to do what it says, that’s just wrong. My family believes in Jehovah. We are Jehovah’s Witnesses and I have never said the Pledge, even though I stand up for it. Putting ‘under God’ in it doesn’t make it any better. My parents have told me never to say it.”
Mrs. Miller was beginning to feel nauseated. She never thought teaching the new Pledge would be so difficult. It had seemed simple when her principal explained it during an in-service meeting last Friday. He hadn’t said anything about Choctaws and Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Then Jimmy Newton raised his hand. “Yes, Jimmy, do you have something to say?” asked Mrs. Miller. Jimmy spoke hesitantly at first. “My parents have told me that they don’t believe in God, so I guess I don’t either. Do I have to say ‘under God’ when we give the Pledge?”
She had never encountered anyone before who claimed not to believe in God.
Mrs. Miller sat on the edge of her desk for support. She had never encountered anyone before who claimed not to believe in God. Before she could answer, the loudspeaker came on and the principal interrupted with the day’s announcements, though none of them registered with Mrs. Miller.
When the announcements were over, Mrs. Miller started the class on its first assignment of the day — a math worksheet that kept them busy for 30 minutes. That time gave Mrs. Miller a chance to think. She decided to ask the parents of Bobby, Suzie, and Jimmy to come in for a parent-teacher conference the next day — a Tuesday. The three children carried her written notes home with them.
On Tuesday afternoon at 4 o’clock, Jimmy’s parents appeared at the classroom door. A couple of minutes later, Bobby’s father arrived. After waiting for a few more minutes for Suzie’s parents, she decided to start without them.
Mrs. Miller explained what had happened at the start of class on Monday and asked if any of the parents had any suggestions for how to handle this situation. Jimmy’s parents spoke up first. Mr. Newton, a department manager at Sears, explained his point of view about the Pledge. He said that he had never much liked the Pledge, but had to draw the line at turning it into a chance to indoctrinate children into believing in God.
‘The Pledge was written by a Baptist preacher named Francis Bellamy.’
Mr. Newton continued, “The Pledge was written by a Baptist preacher named Francis Bellamy back in 1892, just before Columbus Day celebrations to mark the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ discovery of the new world. It started being recited by school children after the president issued a proclamation about it.”
Mr. Newton went on, “The recent addition of the words ‘under God’ were nothing more than an effort to show that Americans weren’t like those non-religious Commies in the Soviet Union and China. I don’t see any reason to get children mixed up with religion and politics.”
Bobby’s father, Mr. Lewis, a union leader at a manufacturing plant, spoke up, “One of the things about this new addition to the Pledge that concerns me is the use of the term God. Whose god is included? The Choctaws seem to feel that the sun is their deity. While I am not Choctaw, I respect the way my wife and her mother were brought up. And there are others I know who believe in Allah, but I don’t know if Allah is included in this idea about ‘under God.’ What can you tell us about this Mrs. Miller?”
Before she could answer, Mr. Newton said, “Those are good questions. I mean, we’ve had lots of gods over the centuries – Vishnu is a Hindu god. Some people believe that Satan is a god. Some people used to worship Thor and Zeus and a thousand other gods, and Buddhists may or may not have a belief in a god. Which god is the new Pledge referring to?”
She blurted, ‘Well, we’re talking about the Christian God, of course.’
Mrs. Miller had the feeling that she was doing better with her students than she was with their parents. She blurted, “Well, we’re talking about the Christian God, of course.”
Mr. Newton responded by reminding her that there was a Jewish synagogue in town where many prominent citizens worshipped. “Surely,” he said, “Congress did not mean to leave their beliefs out of the Pledge.”
Just then, Mr. Potter, Suzie’s father arrived. “I’m sorry to be late,” he said. “I had to talk with one of the elders at Kingdom Hall to get some information. What I learned is, I think, important to the discussion you are having.”
“Very well,” said Mrs. Miller, “Please tell us what you have learned.”
With that, Mr. Potter, went on, “Just 11 years ago, the United States Supreme Court decided a case from West Virginia that concerned the children of a Jehovah’s Witness family. They believed that pledging allegiance to the flag is a form of idolatry, like the worship of graven images that is prohibited by the Bible. What I needed to get from our elder is the specific words of the Supreme Court in that case.”
Mr. Potter continued, reading from some papers he had brought with him, “If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein.”
“That’s what the Supreme Court wrote about requiring children to recite the Pledge,” said Mr. Potter. “I hope this school will not continue to require our children to do something the Supreme Court says they can’t be required to do.”
Mrs. Miller had had enough of this discussion. “I want to thank you for coming in and discussing these matters with me. I’ll think about them and discuss them with the principal.” With that, the meeting ended.
The next morning, after the bell sounded to start the day, the principal’s voice came on the speaker in each room. “I want to announce some clarifications to our Pledge procedures,” the principal said. “Students should know that they are not required to stand for the Pledge, nor are they required to recite the Pledge. This is a matter of personal belief and practice. I hope you have a good school day.”
With that, the problem with the recitation of the new Pledge was over. After a while, the memory of the controversy faded and the school returned to normal with some students reciting the Pledge each morning and others sitting it out. And the lessons learned at James Madison Elementary School in 1954 were followed throughout the land.
[Rag Blog columnist Lamar W. Hankins, a former San Marcos, Texas, City Attorney, also blogs at Texas Freethought Journal. This article © Texas Freethought Journal, Lamar W. Hankins.]
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