Standing Up for the Pledge

The rebirth of patriotism since Sept. 11 has created a new national unity. The flags, music, and rousing words have been reminders of the country's worth. But in one setting - public schools - one reminder can also spark controversy.

The Pledge of Allegiance, something earlier generations took for granted, has been a point of contention in some school districts. In Madison, Wis., for example, the school board last week had to reverse itself after ruling that the pledge was not an appropriate way to comply with a state law that requires daily patriotic exercises in schools and leaves it up to districts what those would be.

Protests against the decision were loud and clear. Parents and others shot off some 20,000 angry phone calls and e-mails. Schools in Madison can now use the pledge, though they're instructed to tell students that participation is voluntary.

The trend back to using the pledge was given a boost when US Education Secretary Rod Paige asked all schoolchildren to recite it on Oct. 12.

Objections to the pledge come from a minority who contend that the phrase "under God" brings religion into the public realm, and that patriotism by rote recital is shallow.

The religion issue is easily overstated. The pledge is not a prayer, and "under God" expresses a consensus on the importance of spirituality to many Americans. After all, "In God We Trust" appears on US currency.

In some schools, a resurgence of patriotic feelings has been accompanied by a renewed push to have prayers at school functions. That's a quite different matter, which courts have generally restricted.

Concerning patriotism by rote, increasing numbers of teachers are asking students to discuss what "republic" and "indivisible" mean. They shouldn't shy away from discussing "under God" either, to emphasize freedom of religion - including the freedom to have no religion.

The best way to instill patriotism is to encourage youngsters to be active in the American democratic experiment - so they appreciate such ideals as "liberty and justice for all," and the work it takes to be true to them.

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