Do Kids Understand the Pledge of Allegiance?

Only the God part.

Having emerged relatively unscathed from the experience of reciting the Pledge of Allegiance five times a week in public school, Chatterbox is disinclined to make a big deal about its inclusion of the phrase “under God,” which a federal appeals court just ruled unconstitutional. (Chatterbox, a lifelong atheist, found shop class much more traumatic.) Now that so many other people are making a big deal about its proposed exclusion, however, he must weigh in. Merely as a matter of logic, Chatterbox disputes Supreme Court Justice William Brennan’s oft-cited rationale (in Lynch v. Donnelly) that

such practices as the designation of “In God We Trust” as our national motto, or the references to God contained in the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag can best be understood, in Dean Rostow’s apt phrase, as a form of “ceremonial deism,” protected from Establishment Clause scrutiny chiefly because they have lost through rote repetition any significant religious content.

Like Brennan, Chatterbox wishes that “under God” as recited in public schoolrooms had no “significant religious content.” But the hysterical reaction to the 9th Circuit decision on the part of Christian conservatives proves this isn’t so. Pat Robertson is already predicting that God will punish the United States for this court decision by inflicting another Sept.-11-style terrorist attack:

After the shocking events of September 11th, I was asked on television interviews, “Where was God in all of this?” The court should realize that if something much more terrible than September 11th befalls our beloved nation, the answer to the question “Where was God in all of this?” may well be “He was excluded by the 9th Circuit.”

Far from being devoid of any meaning, the phrase “under God” is one of the few words or phrases in the Pledge of Allegiance likely to be at all intelligible to the grade-schoolers who recite it. To test this hypothesis, one need look no further than Microsoft Word, which has a function that allows users to look up “readability statistics” concerning a given block of text. To learn how, click here. (Conflict-of-interest note: Chatterbox really didn’t intend this to be a commercial for Slate’s parent company. But when a representative from Micro Power and Light Co., manufacturer of the rival “Readability Plus” programs, refused to input the pledge into his software, presumably because he didn’t want to annoy God-fearing school superintendents who might be customers, Chatterbox didn’t know where else to go.)

According to Word, the Flesch-Kincaid scale puts the Pledge of Allegiance at the 9th-grade level. (Actually, 9.4, whatever that means.) Except for those with reading skills well above their grade level, then, the pledge is apparently unintelligible to any elementary-school kids who recite it (and very likely to most junior-high schoolchildren as well). Also according to Word, the pledge has a Flesch Reading Ease score of 54.6, which, according to this essay by Rudolf Flesch, who devised both scales, means the pledge is “fairly difficult” to understand. (As a reference point, this Chatterbox item, which is obviously written for adults, rates a Flesch Reading Ease score of 43.2—”fairly difficult” to “difficult”—and requires a 12th-grade reading level.)

The “fairly difficult” rating isn’t all that surprising when you consider how complicated the pledge is syntactically. The difficulty lies in the second sentence, which was rendered even harder to follow after President Dwight Eisenhower shoehorned in the phrase “under God” at the behest of the Knights of Columbus in 1954. (The zany syntax probably wasn’t evident to Eisenhower, who had a convoluted speaking style to begin with.) “And to the republic, for which it stands [What’s “it”? Oh, right, the flag], one nation, under God, indivisible [God is indivisible? Then what about the Holy Trinity? Oh, I see, it’s the nation that’s indivisible], with liberty and justice [Still talking about the nation …] for all.” This is not an easy path to wind down.

Now let’s consider the difficulty of words within the pledge. Since the Flesch-Kincaid and Flesch Reading Ease scales don’t rate individual vocabulary words, Chatterbox turned to a Web page developed by Richard Pressinger, a former reading teacher in the Tampa, Fla., school system. Pressinger’s Web page is a commercial site that sells software to promote reading and vocabulary skills, but it includes free vocabulary lists for Grades 1, 2, 3, and 4.

Chatterbox checked all four vocabulary lists. None included the words “allegiance,” “republic,” “indivisible,” “liberty,” or “justice.” The word “flag” was identified as a first-grade-level word, “under” a second-grade-level word, and “nation” a third-grade-level word. By this measure, then, “flag,” “under,” and “nation” are the only words in the Pledge of Allegiance that the typical fourth-grader can understand.

The word “God” does not appear on any of the vocabulary lists, but that’s only because God is a subject that public schools tend to avoid—not to appease secularists so much as to appease religious types, who often view any nonsectarian discussion of religion as blasphemy. As the father of a 6-year-old, however, Chatterbox has conducted his own fieldwork and can state with a high degree of confidence that there are virtually no kindergarteners, even kindergarteners born to unbelieving parents, who are not familiar with the concept of an all-seeing, all-knowing, and all-powerful God. It’s doubtful that omitting His name from the Pledge of Allegiance would alter this state of affairs.