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Worshiping the state in school

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I once led a group of college students in a discussion about the Pledge of Allegiance in our public schools. Most of the students condemned recitations of the pledge - especially its phrase "under God" - as an infringement upon the rights of nonbelievers. Near the end of class, though, one of the pledge's few supporters spoke up.

"Wait a minute," he said. "If the schools can worship George Washington, why can't they worship God?"

The class rose quickly to rebut him, noting that Washington is a "political" figure while God is a "religious" one. Significantly, though, even those students who opposed the mention of God in the pledge thought it was reasonable for schools to revere the Father of our Country. Schools don't pray to Washington, of course, but they certainly deify him - just as they worship America itself. And most Americans would seem to want it that way.

Consider last year's judicial ruling in California, which the Supreme Court recently agreed to review. In striking down a law requiring in-school recitations of the Pledge of Allegiance, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals conceded that "fostering patriotism" was a legitimate educational goal. The problem with the pledge lay only in the words "under God," which were added in 1954 "to advance religion."

So patriotism is in, and religion is out. But what's the difference, really? And why is one acceptable, while the other is not?

You might reply that religion rests on faith, while patriotism is based upon reason. But history suggests otherwise. For the past two centuries, our schools have told our children that we are a uniquely free nation; that we are a force for good in the world, a beacon of liberty on a global sea of tyranny, poverty, and oppression. And we have taught this patriotic catechism exactly like a religion: Students are instructed to believe it, not to question it.

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