ST. LOUIS -- When I possessed the charming innocence of a 12-year-old, I took offense at the wording of the Pledge of Allegiance.
Why, I wondered, was I expected to pledge my allegiance to a flag? Proclaiming loyalty to my country I could understand, but to a piece of fabric?
Moreover, as I had already concluded with unshakable, preadolescent self-confidence that human existence was nothing more than a cosmic accident, I found the phrase "under God" equally offensive.
And so, while my classmates were proudly reciting the full text of the pledge, I was quietly editing my own recitation: "I pledge allegiance ... to the United States of America ... one nation ... indivisible, with liberty and justice for all."
By my final year in high school, however, having acquired a sufficient measure of sophistication to appreciate the importance of symbolism, I no longer resented being asked to swear loyalty to a flag. But we weren't reciting the pledge any more, so I had no chance to mend my ways.
I was also less certain concerning the existence of a Creator. Six years of secondary education had opened my eyes to a universe so enormously complex that to embrace any world view as extreme as atheism seemed the height of arrogance. The phrase "under God," therefore, struck me as a comforting expression of humility, that we as a nation recognized the grandeur of our universe and conceded its unfathomability.
Perhaps the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals judges who ruled the phrase "under God" unconstitutional might have interpreted the law with more humility if they had familiarized themselves not only with the letter but also with the spirit of the Constitution.
Perhaps they might have better understood the intent of the framers if they had read, or remembered, the words of Alexander Hamilton: "The sacred rights of mankind ... are written, as with a sun beam, in the whole of human nature, by the hand of the divinity itself; and can never be erased or obscured by mortal power."
Considering the many references to the Almighty among the writings of the framers of the Constitution, it's astonishing how often we hear the Constitution invoked as the basis for expurgating every reference to God from the public arena. If the Founding Fathers weren't afraid of mentioning God in the Declaration of Independence, why should we fear the utterance of His name in our courthouses or schools?
But many among us are afraid with a fear born of insecurity. Indeed, what is more terrifying than the unknown, and what is less known than what awaits us when we depart this mortal coil?
For the devout atheist, there is no greater dread than the haunting suspicion that he might be wrong, that there might truly be a Creator and an accounting before Him upon arrival in the hereafter. To the atheist, every reference to God is an unwelcome reminder that the rest of the world is not so certain that our existence is random and without purpose.
The great Joseph B. Soloveitchik, a chief rabbi of Boston, summed it up like this: "All extremism, fanaticism and obscurantism come from a lack of security. A person who is secure cannot be an extremist."
And, indeed, extremism in the form of radical religion or radical nihilism is one and the same. The 19th century anarchist used techniques not unlike the suicide bomber of today to advance his own variety of jihad. The modern anarchist uses manipulation of the law to advance his cause, supremely confident that he understands the Constitution better than its authors.
It has been observed that the word ego is in fact an acronym for Elbow God Out. A daily reminder that we should receive our national freedoms with humility is among the surest means of preserving those freedoms for our children.
Yonason Goldson is a rabbi, a high school teacher and a free-lance writer. He lives in St. Louis.