The Pledge of Allegiance Goes to Court

David Niose begins oral arguments in Massachusetts

Today marks an important step in the fight for equality and separation of religion and government.

David Niose, immediate past President of the American Humanist Association and attorney for “John and Jane Doe,” begins oral arguments today before the Massachusetts Supreme Court.

John and Jane Doe, who wish to remain anonymous, have three children in the Acton Boxborough Regional School District, one in high school and two in middle school. They see the pledge as a violation of their constitutional right not to have religion forced upon them by our government, and have sued the school district. They lost the first round but this has continued up the ranks and today is the next step.

I want to talk about semantic satiation as it relates to the pledge. Semantic satiation is something you have probably experienced, even if you didn’t know the name of it – it’s when you are so familiar with a word (or string of words), via memorization and repetition, that the symbol of the word – the sound, the feel of it in your mouth as you say it – no longer triggers the recall of the relevant corresponding concept in your mind. In other words, you repeat a word or phrase to the point that it temporarily loses meaning to you, and your brain processes it as organized sounds rather than as language, as words with actual definitions – it starts to sound “funny.” For example, most people do not actually recite the Pledge of Allegiance; they half-sing it. There is a specific timing involved – a meter, a rhythm – and there is definitely a melody. If you are “reciting” the pledge in a group, it probably sounds something like this:

If you were anything like me as a child, you more-or-less zoned out while you recited the pledge, because it was so familiar that it didn’t require any conscious effort. However, if one person in that group were to change up the melody or rhythm, even if s/he didn’t change the words, people would instantly be aware of it. It’s not just a group of people reciting the same text; it’s a chorus line, and the words are lyrics. This is not necessarily a negative thing; just something to note.

The reason this matters is that on account of the repetition, and the fact that we learn the pledge from our parents or in school far before we are old enough to understand the real, “grown-up” definitions of words like “pledge,” “allegiance,” “republic,” “indivisible,” “liberty,” and “justice,” we actually end up not really paying attention to what we’re saying later on, even after we really do know what those words mean. We recite the pledge the way we do because we were taught to do it that way: We memorized the mouth-motions necessary to form the syllables, the melody, and the rhythm, before we were old enough to understand the words themselves. We don’t need to understand the meanings of the words in order to recite the pledge “properly.” It’s comparably to teaching a non-English speaker to say, “I know that I am a sinner, and I accept Jesus as my personal lord and savior, and ask him to forgive my sins. In Jesus’ name, Amen.” That doesn’t make him a Christian any more than someone teaching me to how to pronounce اللهم صلى على محمد makes me a Muslim.

Listen to this recording of students reciting the pledge, taken from a movie made in 1939. The Pledge of Allegiance has been modified several times since it was first written; this is the original wording:

Don’t think about this question; just answer: What caught your attention first here? What threw off your stride as you mentally followed along? Was it the “missing” words themselves – or was it that the melody was off, on account of the missing chunk?

I think that it is a mistake to teach very young children the Pledge of Allegiance, before they are old enough to understand the semantics. They end up memorizing the melody and the pledge is hollow to them their entire childhoods, possibly even into adulthood, even after they have learned the meanings of the words in other contexts. When it’s time to recite the pledge, they become robots, like Turing music boxes, singing the melody they first memorized as tots without internalizing the meanings behind the symbols. In my opinion, people recite the Pledge of Allegiance way too often. This should be something you do once, when you are old enough to understand it – say, 18 – as a rite-of-passage, maybe when you register to vote or something like that. For example, police officers and the President are sworn in only once. Understanding that oath as a one-time, important life event, gives it more weight. By reciting this pledge at the start of every day of public school, the start of every school or senate assembly, every baseball game and drag-car race, etc, it just becomes devoid of meaning: Semantic satiation. I think it’s interesting that in Islam, the 5 daily prayers aren’t compulsory until children reach the age of 10 years. That makes more sense to me than the way Christian parents tend to do it. Just do a YouTube search for “baby praying” to see what I mean.

Let’s look at quick history of the pledge itself.

A minister named Francis Julius Bellamy (1855 – 1931) penned the pledge in 1892. The original wording was the same as the pledge in the latter video above. (Trivia buffs: The kid who sticks out his arm 9 seconds in, Nazi-style, was actually doing it correctly for the time period: Bellamy invented a special salute to accompany his pledge, called the “Bellamy Salute,” and he wrote detailed instructions on how to perform it, stretching out one’s arm toward the flag. Decades later, the Nazis independently adopted a very similar gesture (the Nazi Salute).  In order to avoid confusion, President FDR and the Congress formally amended the Flag Code on December 22, 1942, changing the protocol from stretching out one’s arm to placing one’s hand over his/her heart instead, and that’s been the protocol ever since. There was initially some protest from people about amending the Flag Code like that – some saw the change as a slap in the face to tradition and a cave to foreign pressures – but they got over it.

By the way, there is a famous picture of aviator Charles Lindbergh allegedly doing the Nazi Salute; he was actually doing the Bellamy Salute:


Lindbergh is on the right.

American schoolchildren performing the Bellamy Salute.

American schoolchildren performing the Bellamy Salute.

In 1923–’24, the words “my flag” were changed to “the flag of the United States of America,” with the idea that immigrants might be confused about whether they were pledging allegiance to their birth-country’s flag, or the American flag. The pledge retained this wording for 30 more years; the words “under God” were not part of the pledge yet at this point.

Several different groups, acting at different times, attempted to get Congress to amend the Flag Code to include the words “under God.” The idea seems to have started in 1948, but it took until 1954 to become law. Part of the reason for the delay is that President Harry “I’m not very much impressed with men who publicly parade their religious beliefs” Truman (’45–’53), who was a Democrat, was not very willing to let that happen (go Truman!). Republican President Dwight D. “[I’m] one of the most deeply religious men I know” Eisenhower, though, took office on January 20, 1953, and was instrumental in making the revised wording official. The story about how “under God” made it in is actually pretty interesting, but I won’t get into it here.

So this brings us to the current wording: “I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the republic for which it stands, one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”

Because of semantic satiation, even though I know you all are fluent in English, I want to dissect the denotata of these words. We come now to the purpose of this article: It’s important, I think, if we’re going to go to the trouble of reciting something, that we do so with full awareness of its meaning. Sometimes, context or a mental image can be helpful, so I will do my best to provide both for you. With any luck, the next time you decide to pledge your allegiance to the US flag and the US republic (or the next time you hear the pledge, if you elect not to recite it, or if you’re simply not an American), you’ll stop to smell the roses a bit more, so to speak.

Pledge: The word “pledge” originally meant collateral as security for repayment of a loan, from Middle English pleggen (to become surety for). In other words, when you pledge something, you are not simply making a promise, you are putting your money where your mouth is. “Pledge” is a transitive verb: It takes a direct object. You can’t simply pledge; grammatically there must be some noun that you are pledging. In this context, you are pledging your…

Allegiance: This comes from Middle English, too, specifically from liege, a vassal bound to feudal service. It also has a second definition of the lord to whom such a vassal is bound – you could use it either way. Shakespeare used it in this second sense often, as one example, Henry V, Act 1, Scene 2: “Shall we call in the ambassador, my liege?” It’s basically another way of saying “lord.” The weight of the word “liege” doesn’t really translate from Middle English to modern English; there just isn’t a modern equivalent without knowing some context of what exactly a lord’s role was in the feudal system of the High Middle Ages. It’s complicated and I don’t want to get into it here, but the point is that when you pledge allegiance to something, you are swearing an oath far beyond what any toddler could possibly understand. Allegiance means you are swearing your entire life, livelihood, and family name over to your lord, up to and including dying to protect his interests in the event of war. It’s not by any stretch a minor commitment!


(There’s actually something really cool going down in this painting, but I’ll save that story for another time.)

Republic: One of my favorite words. This comes from the Latin RES PVBLICA, which literally means “[this] public thing” in the nominative, but the Romans used it idiomatically to mean essentially what it means in English, and the idea of the “Republic” was as important to Romans as the American Flag is to the rightest of the right-wingers today – it was more-or-less sacred. In a republic, government power resides in a citizenry entitled to vote, and is exercised by elected representatives responsible & accountable to them, who govern according to law, under a head-of-state who is not a monarch, i.e a president or consul. (Side note: Contrast this to la cosa nostra, “this thing of ours,” which is what the Italian mafia calls itself). It’s a mouthful of a definition, but it has very important features. The United States has what I think is a fascinating government structure. It sounds like a great idea on paper – everyone gets a say, and in theory, decisions are made with the best interests of the majority of people at heart; anyone can run for office, and the decision-makers are held accountable for their actions. In reality, because the decision-making process is carried out by committee, it’s extremely slow & inefficient, and decisions end up benefiting the people who have the most money to donate to campaign funds. And although technically any citizen can run for office, there are significant economic & social barriers to entry. For example, according to a 2007 Gallup poll, 55% of Americans would refuse to vote for a presidential candidate nominated by their own party, who was otherwise qualified, if s/he happened to be an atheist. What’s up with that? Anyway, I digress… The point is that when you recite the pledge and get to the word “republic,” think of ancient Rome, think of the senate and the consuls, think of voting and citizenship and the law, because that’s what it really means. When I hear the word “republic,” this is what I picture.

One Nation: This is a solidarity thing. Nationalism can be dangerous; for one thing, it’s inherently divisive. In a world approaching a global economy, it can be a hindrance to identify terribly strongly with one particular country. We have one planet and we are literally all in this together. That’s just my opinion, though: The reason this is in the pledge is that, I imagine, the author wanted to emphasize the same idea represented in our national motto: E PLVRIBVS VNVM (lit. out of many, one). Similarly…

Indivisible: Bellamy was 10 years old when the War Between The States ended. He wrote the pledge 27 years later, but I’m sure that was still very much on his mind. This too is a Latin-based word; it’s the prefix “in” (not) + di(s) (apart) + videre (the verb “to see, to separate”). You might be wondering what the common thread is between “to see” and “to separate” such that the Romans used the same word for both concepts. I wonder that sometimes, myself. This is also the root of the English word, “widow.”

Liberty: This word also has its roots in Latin, from libertas/libertatis (freedom or liberty), the same root as Liberal. Liberty means a lot of things; I’m just going to pull straight from Merriam-Webster’s Third New International Unabridged here: “freedom from usually external restraint or compulsion : the power to do as one pleases,” “exemption from subjection to the will of another claiming ownership or services,” “freedom from arbitrary or despotic control,” “the power of choice.” By the way, if you’ve never read Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, you should think about it. And lastly…

Justice: Another Latin word, justus (upright, equitable) from jusjuris (right, as in the legal kind). Justice means being fair. This was an extremely important concept in ancient Rome, in fact among their pantheon, they worshipped a goddess of justice (Justitiaaka Lady Justice). The Romans “borrowed” her from the Greek goddess Themis. Justitia is usually depicted nowadays in paintings and statues wearing a blindfold and holding a scale and a double-edged sword (although the blindfold was a 15th-century addition). Her iconography is actually a conflation of two earlier Greek goddesses, Tyche (Lady Luck; Fortuna in Latin) and Nemesis (from νέμειν, the Greek verb meaning “to give what is due”).


Obligatory picture of said kittens, left to right: Hickory (12 months), Maddie (8 months)

I’m not big on pledges. I think it’s better to continually evaluate your stance on things. Just because you pledge something doesn’t mean it will always & forever be the more ethical or most prudent move to follow through with what you said. Situations change and circumstances change and it’s not a good idea to have your principles set in stone. For example, when I adopted my kittens from the Humane Society, I signed a statement agreeing to take good care of them, feed them and give them veterinary care, and to keep them happy & healthy & alive to the best of my ability for as long as 15-20 years. But one day, no doubt, they will get old, get sick, and be miserable, and euthanizing them will be the most ethical thing I can do. It’s not something I like to think about particularly, but that’s just the way life is. I don’t have any fantasies about seeing them again in some sort of afterlife – don’t get me wrong, I would love if it they could live forever with me – but I am cognizant of the fact that that’s not going to happen in reality. You have to take things as they come, and evaluate your ethical obligations in light of the present circumstances. Just make sure you remember to include your previous obligations in your calculation.

In a country with separation of religion and government, the phrase “under God” does not belong in our official Pledge. It’s inappropriate as it forces religion on everyone and improperly endorses the idea that God is manifest, linked, or otherwise necessary to being an American and a patriot.

We’ll keep you posted as the topic develops.

Dave Muscato

Public Relations Director, American Atheists
(908) 276-7300 x7
[email protected]

  • RealAmerican

    We need to take “under god” out of the pledge and “in god we trust” off of our money. Both were put there illegally.

    • Frank

      legal or not – we’re long past the original reasons why they’re there. Time to restore the separation of church and state

  • Kate Karwowska

    You are so right! I “learned” the pledge as a young child but really had no idea what I was actually saying. Just learned and recited by rote.

    I sincerely hope that the words “under god” will be removed in my lifetime. Whenever I am asked to recite the pledge, I always omit those words on my own.

    • Elise Martin

      You didn’t understand because yourr parents didn’t teach you. Not your fault or anyone else….simply your mother and father lacked.

      • Kate Karwowska

        You clearly missed my point completely. Totally “yourr” fault.

      • Dave Muscato

        The point is that no 5-year-old can understand the weight of these words. Most adults don’t even really understand the weight of these words. Did you actually read the article?

  • MGA

    In 1958, raised atheist & totally patriotic, I hated having to say “under god” when reciting the pledge. I think my doubts about how perfect the USA was (we had just won the great war) might have started with being forced to lie like that…..

  • evilcrebyc

    If god is all-pervasive then surely there is just as much god below you as there is above and to either side etcetera. Don’t they mean inside god? oh! wait god is inside you as well so how can you be under something that’s inside you and all around you. This pledge is nonsensical.

    • Jack Srade

      I hope you lose this suit just as you’ve lost so many others. Bible and prayer were taken out schools then what happens…school massacres.
      Take God out of everything else then what happens…end time. We are indeed living in the end time…full of antichrist people, Godless, fearless and hopeless unless you open your eyes and repent.

      • Kin

        When you say godless, do you mean that they don’t have religion or that they aren’t Christian?

  • Pingback: Family Sues Over ‘Under God’ in Pledge | C. S. Burks, Esq.()

  • Bob

    I just leave the phrase out and change it to say “…indivisible with the hope of liberty and justice for all.”

  • CoraLouise

    It is not the business of the government to declare there is indeed a “god”. And making it an upper case “G” god, indicates the government is declaring the validity of the singular Judeo/Christian (and perhaps Muslim) god. This would make the pledge offensive to polytheists as well as atheists.

  • Joseph Heston

    The one thing that Bellamy wanted in his pledge but kept out was “equality” because the powers-that-be at the time did not subscribe to the concept of equality, so if you really wanted to honor Bellamy, replace “under God” with “equality”, and then you’ll have a very inclusive pledge.

  • Jessica Andrus

    I have wanted to fight the pledge since I was in school, but I lacked the courage. You know why they go by John and Jane Doe? Because theists, Christians in particular, are a nasty, vindictive lot who would persecute and make miserable the lives of anyone they found trying to take their precious deity out of the pledge. I want to fight it still, but I lack the support structure I would need to engage in a battle of that magnitude. I’m not strong enough to do something like that alone.

    I have such great respect for this family for standing up. I hope they succeed.

    • Anthony

      They go by John and Jane because they are ashamed. Also, if you wish not supply your name it may also mean that you are indeed a coward and should have no business fighting. BTW, my name is Anthony Spears. I’ll stand for what’s right by myself or with a group. You shouldn’t have any respect for a cowardly family. They will lose.

      • buddy

        It takes little courage to take a stand for the status-quo. It takes courage to take a stand against the majority, for the same reason they don’t give their real name. People get ugly when others rock a boat the majority is comfortable in.

        • Jessica Andrus

          Look at what happened to Vashti McCollum and her family when she fought to have religious classes taken out of her child’s public education. Standing up for what is right against millions of people who believe otherwise is HARD.

          I think I, personally, could handle the arrogant toerags who want to shove their beliefs down my throat, but I don’t know what I’d do if they went after my children. Inevitably, that is who would suffer the brunt of the bullying. I’d stay anonymous, too, to protect them.

      • Shawn W

        Tony you are an ass. My Name is Shawn Webster and I stand behind my statement. John and Jane Doe are protecting their children from zealots who will try and physically harm them because they are standing up for their beliefs by fighting in court. I’m sure that if they 100% knew they would not be harmed they would be more than fine to give their names.

      • Shecky

        They DID lose.

  • Jennifer

    I like the article. The picture of kittens in the last paragraph, however, distracts from it’s credibility.

    • Dave Muscato

      I appreciate your input and considered not including it. I ultimately did because I wanted to remind people why we do this: Because there are other things that are also important in life, but we are only free to appreciate them and enjoy them when we are not burdened by unnecessary fights like warring with religion. If religious people would just keep their beliefs to themselves, the rest of us could do philosophy, art, space exploration, medical research, you name it. Instead we have to fight against two little words in some piece of legislature buried in the congressional Flag Code. It’s a waste of time at the same time that it’s the most important use of our time and it’s a shame. I want to live in a world where I am not burdened by religion so that I have more time to play with my cats. It’s a good reminder for me. Hope this helps!

  • JusticeforZac Champommier

    Forget the cats, that looks like a sweet Taylor of to the side.

    • Dave Muscato

      It is 🙂 It’s a custom-shop version of the Leo Kottke signature model. His is a 12-string; this one is a 6-string. It’s signed by Bob Taylor on the inside! Sounds amazing, especially tuned way down. I have it at C-C right now.

  • Charles Raymond Miller

    Religious people treat those words as an incantation to invoke the “blessings of God on our nation”. Does it work? Let’s see. The Dollar has lost value every year since that motto was added. America has not won a war since “under God” was shoehorned into the pledge.

    • Elise Martin

      American has gone down because we are taking God out not adding Him in.

      • Dave Muscato

        The most peaceful, happy, and equitable countries in the world are, lo and behold, the ones with the least religion.

        The most war-torn, corrupt, and sick countries in the world are, lo and behold, the ones with the most religion.


        • JH

          Sorry China and Russia alone blow that right out of the water.

        • Jeff

          Can you name those countries?

          • Dave Muscato


            Countries where religion is the least important to the citizenry are places like Estonia, Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Finland, the UK, etc.

            Countries where religion is most important to the citizenry are places like Bandladesh, Niger, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Egypt, Somaliland, etc.

  • Renee

    I fully agree with Dave Muscato on his views about the pledge of allegiance. Under God needs to be removed along with In God We Trust on our money. This country should not be considered a Christian nation. It is a nation for all people not just those of the Christian faith.

    • Elise Martin

      So the founders made a mistake?

      • Dave Muscato

        What do you mean?

  • Alex

    You all should be ashamed of yourselves. Wanting to take “under God” out of the pledge. Forget this “everybody needs equality nonsense”. What if I’m gay and wish to got to court to have the pledge say ” “to flag of the sodimites of America” Wouldn’t that then violate a straight person’s rights? You can’t please all 7 billion in the world. Leave our country alone and don’t try to chance things. There’s nothing wrong with having “Under God” in our pledge. If you don’t’ like it, don’t recite it (like the JWs). Massachusetts Supreme Court, come on, really, the founding fathers in that area have strong roots of God. You’ll lose this hands down.

    • Charles Raymond Miller

      Equality is nonsense?

    • Jessica Andrus

      So if the pledge said “under Allah” you would feel the same way? Or is it simply because you are suffering from Christian privilege that you feel comfortable keeping those two words in there?

      You know, “under god” wasn’t in the original. It was changed. If you are so against change, shouldn’t you be for taking it out again to restore the pledge to its original beauty?

  • Natural man

    One nation under god, in god we trust… what some tripe mind washing rot!

  • Librepensadora

    When we did not have “under God,” it was clearly our nation which was indivisible. If you don’t have that original meaning, it sounds as if it is the God we are under who is indivisible.

  • Andrew Houston

    I didn’t stand up for the pledge in high school after I figured out it was wrong.

  • Andrew Houston

    Even if we did get it changed I still wouldn’t make children pledge their allegiance every morning. They don’t even know what they are saying.

  • Shecky

    Atheists sure spend a lot of time beeyatching about a God they claim doesn’t exist.

  • Shecky

    By the way, your hero non-believer David Niosi just LOST his case in Massachusetts, haha. Now go find something better to do with your time.

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