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My deep dark secret about the pledge of allegiance

Every time I’ve seen Colin Kaepernick in the news this week, I’ve felt an odd kind of camaraderie in his defiance. To me, it shouldn’t make sense: he’s a black man protesting police brutality, I’m a white woman with little to complain about. But, each time I see him refuse to follow in a national tradition that does not represent his experience, I am reminded of the times I stumbled over the words “under God” while reciting the Pledge of Allegiance.

I remember being an obedient pledge-reciter in elementary school. Every morning, just after the first bell would ring, I’d look forward to the routine of reciting the pledge. It felt a little weird to me that I announced my loyalty to “one nation, under God” every day (especially when I spent fewer than one day a year in church), but I didn’t question it.

It dawned on me sometime in high school, after seeing half my friends finish their confirmations and the other half their Bat Mitzvahs, that I didn’t know where I belonged in the religious world. I had always assumed that if you weren’t born specifically Jewish, Muslim, or some other religious identity that you just defaulted as Christian. I was white, I was American, so therefore, I was also Christian–right?

I had, after all, grown up in a country where presidents proclaimed “God bless America” and bumper-stickers exclaimed “God bless our troops!” Believing in God was half of being an American. But what was I if I didn’t?

I never thought long-and-hard about whether or not I believed in God; it never seemed to be a burning question. But sometime in my teens, I realized that if I didn’t believe in God, not to mention Jesus, I probably shouldn’t be calling myself a Christian.

I set myself a goal of “religious adventure” during my senior year of high school: I’d visit different religious groups and try to figure out where I belonged among all of them. Even though I didn’t believe in a God, I didn’t feel like “Atheist” was the right label for me; so I tried to look around.

That year, I visited Quaker meetinghouses, attended Channukah parties, drove to monasteries, and sat through countless religious services. Quakerism fell close to what I was looking for, but it wasn’t quite right. It wasn’t until I got to college, and joined my campus’s Unitarian Universalist (UU) group, that I found what I had been looking for.

It turned out that Unitarian Universalism didn’t mind that I couldn’t say whether I believed in God. It was all right to be a non-theist UU, what mattered more were my actions and relationships with others. I came to find that I believed in people and community, and that there were religious spaces that would support me regardless of my faith.

I still don’t know whether not believing in God means I’m less American than my Christian peers. I still don’t say the “under God” part of the Pledge of Allegiance and I still feel a little strange when a presidential candidate calls for God to bless America.

But, I am starting to realize that “American” is supposed to be an encompassing term–and that there’s a place for me in that.

Not unlike Kaepernick’s desire to see “American” include people of color, I’d love to see the day when “American” doesn’t automatically mean “Christian,” or even religious. He’s fighting a battle I’ll never face, but I’m glad to know I’m not the only one who feels out of place during national traditions. I’ll carry on as an unusual patriot: pledging my allegiance to an America that includes me.

By Cecilia Nowell

Cecilia Nowell is a freelance journalist and recent graduate of Wellesley College. She writes about politics and art, and gets excited about graphic novels, mythology, and art therapy. In her free time, she runs a cat blog, drinks too much tea, and enjoys hiking.