Every morning at Austin Elementary School, my classmates and I were greeted by the clanging of metal swivel snaps beating against the flag pole. Positioned next to the front door, the American flag billowed high above us as we began a new day of multiplication tables, playing Number Munchers in the computer lab, and practicing cursive by writing in the sky with our air pencils, i.e., our fingers. The melodic clatter of the metal snaps against the pole chimed out until the end of each day when two students would retrieve the flag before the final bell rang. It was presented as an honor to retrieve the flag and each year, we were taught in gym class how to fold it properly like at a military funeral. While I think being chosen was less a matter of earned privilege and more a matter of alphabetical order, it was a great day when you were called for flag duty. Once the flag was folded into triangular segments and turned over to whichever adult was tasked with flag-sitting, we could skip back to class feeling self-important and wildly American having done our underage civic duty.
However, our young patriotism wasn’t relegated only to folding the flag at the end of the day once a school year. In Texas, we said the Pledge of Allegiance around five minutes after the bell rang each morning. We stood next to our desks, put our little hands over our little hearts and recited the pledge while staring at the small flag hanging above our classroom door. This was also something we were given the honor to lead once a year. From the main office, two students would speak into the intercom to lead the school in our patriotic morning duty. We’d say, “Hello, my name is Ryan Brinson and Blah McBlah from Miss Craiger’s class, please rise for the Pledge of Allegiance.” Then, in unison, we’d recite the pledge.
I pledge allegiance to the Flag of the United States of America and to the Republic for which it stands, one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.
For most American school children, that was the end of their morning ritual, but for us Texans, immediately following the pledge to our nation’s flag, we said the pledge to the Texas flag. “Now we will say the pledge to the Texas flag,” we’d say into the microphone, the sounds of our pint-sized soprano voices echoing down the linoleum-floored halls.
Honor the Texas flag; I pledge allegiance to thee, Texas, one state under God, one and indivisible.
After that, we’d tell the school what was on the cafeteria menu for the day, every student hoping to hear “chicken fried steak and mashed potatoes” as that was clearly the best, but we’d happily settle for pizza cut into a square. We’d then walk back to class feeling fancy and grown.
Both pledges were recited with equal importance, as it was engrained in us as early as six-years-old that our devotion to Texas was equal to our devotion to America. It wasn’t overtly stated, it was simply understood. I was unaware I’d been indoctrinated so young, but when I lived in London for a summer as a part of graduate school two decades later, I encountered people from all over the world at the various tourist locations and castles we explored and often they asked my fellow students and me where we were from. We promptly responded, “Texas.” They told us most people from our country respond with “America” except for those who were from Texas, who respond as such.
As Americans (and Texans), we’re told from our first Pledge of Allegiance that we live in the greatest country on Earth and for most of my life, it was a forgone conclusion that we in the United States were superior to everyone else. When you’re raised in the Bible Belt, this notion is intrinsically tied to America being a “Christian nation.” Now in adulthood, I have question marks about the moral compass of two-thirds of the Christian men who founded our country, namely the ones who had slaves doing their housework and tucking in their children, but I have just as many present-tense questions about Americans who claim moral superiority over anyone who doesn’t believe the same way they do.
If asked, many Bible Belt Christians would state that our country’s been in decline since prayer was removed from public schools. In the same way I began my mornings pledging allegiance to the American and Texas flags, students used to begin their mornings praying to the God to whom the Pope prays. I often read comments from people claiming that the disappearance of prayer is the reason our nation faces a “crisis of faith.” They posit that if prayer was still in schools, tragedies like Columbine or Sandy Hook would never have happened. I’d argue that has less to do with prayer and more to do with gun control, but ultimately what they’re saying is that if we still forced school children to pray to a God they may or may not believe in, our country would still look and feel like it did in 1955. By the way, 1955 was a great year to be a woman, a person of color, or a minority of any sort.
As a young person in the church, the time when prayer began each school day was almost a fabled era, a time when our nation was openly and overtly Jesus-centric. I actually attended a private Bible School for my first few years of college and we prayed at the beginning of class. I’ll admit it wasn’t an imposition to do so, but that was because it was a small school populated solely by Super-Christians; the classroom makeup in no way reflected the real world. In the real world, as the social makeup of the United States shifted and the faith systems by which people prescribed became more diverse, it was imperative the government phase out strictly Christian references from schools. America is a country of inclusiveness, despite whatever talking head tries to say to the contrary, yet the integration and inclusion of different faiths, as well as the faithless, is regularly spun into an attack on Christianity.
The idealism of a quaint America is the notion that spurred people to vote to make America “great” again. It was actually that same slogan that got Regan elected as well. While distanced by decades, clearly there are large swaths of Americans who want to do more than fondly look at a “simpler time” and they’re willing to forfeit social progress in favor of turning back time, something only Cher should be allowed to do.
Each year in September, millions of students around the country gather at their flag poles on a Wednesday to pray for their schools. “See You at the Pole” first picked up steam when I was a teenager and large crowds of diverse denominations gathered around the flag pole at my middle school that morning. A youth pastor from a local church led the prayer, we asked God to bless our school and the students inside it. More than a public display of invocation, this was supposed to symbolize a unity among the Christian students to champion the message of love as we walked between our lockers and our classrooms.
One year when I was in high school, a few teenagers recapped the scene at their schools during our Wednesday night service following the prayer at the pole. Some had dozens of students show up, some had hundreds, but we all rested easy in a spiritual job well done. Dave, our youth pastor who we loved, spoke that evening about prayer in schools. He talked about the removal of formal prayers in 1962 and he talked about the state of our schools now. He then posed a question – do we need a formal prayer in our schools to be able to function as Christians?
For so long, I’d heard so much about bringing prayer back to our schools and waxing poetic about the big “what if” prayer was still a daily educational mandate. What he argued was that we should be focused on doing what Jesus called us to do: be a light in a dark world. Every day, we were presented with opportunities to be God’s hand extended. Some days that took the form of helping a stranger pick up their dropped books in the stairwell and some days that took the form of volunteering to work with kids who have disabilities. Some days, showing God’s love is a simple as smiling. As a young person in the church, I heard more about the necessity of prayer in schools than I did about the necessity of prayer at home. It seems it was the government’s responsibility to ensure America’s children were spiritually sound, not their parent’s or God forbid, themselves.
Some church-goers seem to ride both sides of the fence when it comes to the government. They want churches to be tax-free and they’ll rally behind the notion of Separation of Church and State when it benefits them, but if that State, which they’ve fought to be separate, gives rights, privileges or marriage licenses to people they don’t think should have them, they’ll claim this is a Christian nation and this new law or amendment violates God’s law. It’s seems very double-sided.
In the same vein, I often I see Christians on TV disparaging people with opposite political beliefs and villainizing them by labeling them un-American. I just don’t think that’s the case. The Bible was written by Middle Eastern people for Middle Eastern people and while the message is universal, why so many Americans think they’ve cornered the mainline to God through His Word truly baffles me. How did we become so arrogant and prideful in our devotion to our interpretation of the Bible?
I also question why for many, the link between someone’s devotion to God and their devotion to the American ideal is so intrinsically ironclad. I question why the word from the talking heads on Fox News is revered as black-and-white truth because the hosts claim to be Christians, regardless of what the facts actually say. I question why the term “Happy Holidays” is viewed as an assault on Christianity akin to being thrown to Nero’s lions rather than an inclusive salutation for people of all faiths. This line of rhetoric is dangerous, like a bottle rocket under too much pressure, and the correlation implies that to be a “true” American, one must also be a Christian. That’s not now, nor was it ever, the case.
To many, my questions make me appear unchristian and therefore unpatriotic. The truth is it’s my deep patriotism that’s why I ask these questions.
For my family, the Fourth of July is second only to Christmas in terms of holidays we look forward to. My grandfather gathers the family in the front yard before dinner to stand under the flag pole he installed just for the occasion and we corporately pledge allegiance to the flag. It’s become the main event, the Pledge. Extended family, friends, boyfriends and girlfriends have all been a part of our familial tradition and it’s still the thing I look forward to the most. The scent of burgers interweaves with the sounds of the Boston Pops on television as we talk about the Texas Rangers and what’s new at work. Also, my grandparents live on a golf course in North Dallas, so when the sun sets, we sit atop one of the greens and watch fireworks. It’s perhaps the only day of the year when the barren flatness of the Dallas terrain creates an enviable horizon. From our hilly perch, we can see multiple fireworks displays all across the Metroplex, each popping and crackling above the city that lays as flat as a card table. This is followed by copious amounts of Blue Bell ice cream, a dessert that’s sacred in our part of the country. The Fourth is as communal as Christmas and just as jovial. I miss it desperately when I can’t be in town and my family makes sure to FaceTime me into the Pledge so I can be a part of it, no matter where I am.
My family, which is a mixed bag of political affiliations and leanings, are able to both cohabitate together in peace and do so with a lot of love for one another. My aunt once told me, “We can have opinions and beliefs and politics, but political views and opinions are secondary to our love for family.” I think that’s the America I love the most. The America that allows us to gather together, to be different, to be maybe at polar opposite ends of the political spectrum, but to love each other. I love that I live in a country where diversity matters and is fought for. And I’m a praying man too, so I love that I can openly pray at a flag pole on a Wednesday in September or a Saturday in April if I so choose.
We’re a divided nation today, split at the seams down the center. My prayer this year is that the fabled American Dream doesn’t die, that people from every background will be able to make a life for themselves in the land of the free. That includes people who aren’t Christians – people who have equal stake at that American Dream because they are, in fact, Americans too. I pray truth will find a way to overtake lies, be it red or blue or something completely outside of those party lines. I pray people will find their way to loving each other fully despite their disagreements and I know that’s a tall order but we have to do it. Lastly, I pray we as a people will look up and forward, not down and backward. That means in the halls of government, in university classrooms, and in church pulpits. We are a nation born from radical people fighting for radical progress. That’s the American Dream I believe is still worth chasing and that’s what the flag on that flag pole means to me today.