By Herb Silverman, Published: September 12
As a baseball-loving elementary school student in the early 1950s, two apparently unrelated changes became part of my daily life. The Cincinnati Reds transformed into the Cincinnati Redlegs, and the words “under God” were added to the Pledge of Allegiance. Actually, they were related—to the fear of Communism then prevalent in the United States during the shameful McCarthy era.
Patriotism, at the time, was often displayed through symbolic gestures that distinguished us from the Soviet Union. Both the Cincinnati team and the Soviet Union were “Reds,” and we didn’t want anyone in 1953 to believe participants in our national pastime could be card-carrying members of the Communist Party. It’s a wonder we didn’t remove a color and give two cheers for a new version of “Old Glory” in just white and blue. By 1959 our national chromatic fears had diminished, so the team once again became the Cincinnati Reds, their original name when they joined the National League in 1890.
Besides being red, the Soviet Union was also godless. So in 1954 our politicians added “under God” to the “one nation, indivisible” Pledge of Allegiance, which was originally written in 1892, only two years after the Reds entered the National League. And thus we turned our unifying and inclusive secular pledge into a divisive and exclusive religious pledge that public school students were expected to recite every day.
Here my analogy ends. Professional baseball teams are private, and it’s none of the government’s business what a team calls itself. The Reds changed their name for a silly reason and wisely returned to their traditional name, but that was their choice. They can change their name to the “Under God Reds” if they want, though they would lose a lot of atheist fans. On the other hand, public schools are not private. The government funds public schools and it must not imply to students or their parents that the government favors one religion over another or religion over non-religion.
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Herb Silverman is founder and President Emeritus of the Secular Coalition for America, AHA board member, and author of Candidate Without a Prayer: An Autobiography of a Jewish Atheist in the Bible Belt.