I attended four different schools when I was growing up in Washington, DC: one Catholic, two state, one private. The levels of teaching, the backgrounds of the students, the facilities on hand - everything varied from school to school.
The one common feature was the morning ritual: the students stood up, facing the flag in a corner of the room, placed a hand upon their heart, and recited the Pledge of Allegiance. "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." The 19th-century words of Francis Bellamy, a Baptist minister, are repeated each morning, programmed into a fresh-faced posse of citizens; they will mouth them later in life as they stride across the globe, trying to force democracy upon the less fortunate.
There is a movement afoot, though, to ban the pledge from America's state schools. Last June, the 9th US Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the pledge was unconstitutional. Most of the Founding Fathers had been clear about the need to separate church and state; after all, they had been persecuted for their religious beliefs by states (well, mainly Britain) that had an established church and brooked no dissent.
In the six months since the court's ruling - now being appealed - the anti-pledge movement has been gaining momentum, and not just among atheists. The same Americans who feel uneasy about war against Saddam are wondering if their homeland can really invoke God's sanction in its belligerent enterprise. Those who feel unhappy about the clamping down on civil liberties since 11 September are asking themselves if a Bush regime should be allowed to claim that God is on its side.
To uproot the Almighty from His place in the American patriotic myth will take some doing. Americans are used to counting on Him rooting for them - just listen how many times President Bush invokes His name in any public forum - and the daily recital of the Pledge of Allegiance merely cements the certainty that their mission is divinely sanctioned. They are the true Chosen People, theirs is truly God's own country. Americans are fervently certain of these truths. I'm not so sure that God is.