The Pledge of Allegiance has sparked yet another bitter row between American conservatives and liberals. A non-custodial father of a young girl brought a court case objecting to her reciting the Pledge in her public school, on grounds that doing so violated the separation of church and state.
The offending clause is "one Nation under God", which he claimed, reasonably enough, endorsed the existence of a Christian God. To the fury of Christian conservatives the court, whose decision covers five western states, found that the Pledge treats non-Christians as "outsiders" and is, therefore, unconstitutional.
Conservatives want schools to display the symbols of nation and Christianity, while liberals recoil at any religious symbolism, regarding references to God in school as a recruitment tool for the religious right.
If you don't know it already, here is the Pledge in all its glory: "I pledge allegiance to the Flag of the United States of America, and to the Republic for which it stands: one Nation under God, indivisible, With Liberty and Justice for all."
In the last part of the 20th century reciting the Pledge in schools was, like the "daily act of worship" in English schools, fading into obscurity.
But it has come back with a vengeance since 911; even in a liberal oasis like my own city, it is pervasive in primaries and secondaries all practise a "daily act of patriotic observance".
Yet the Pledge is incongruous in a country that prizes individual liberty over any other value. There is something Big Brother-ish about so explicitly trying to drum loyalty into a nation's children, while we refrain from teaching them basic values such as humility, modesty and helping the vulnerable.
The Pledge has a complicated history. Francis Bellamy, a pastor and Massachusetts school official, wrote it in 1892. Like New Labour, he thought that immigrants should integrated into the national ethos as quickly as possible, and that reciting the Pledge would help. He fused this to the distinctly un-New Labour goal of an egalitarian planned economy; so ironically the Pledge was conceived as a tool of socialist indoctrination.
It is not surprising, therefore, that it was not adopted by Congress until 1942 when America entered the Second World War. In fact the words "under God" were only introduced as late as 1954: a McCarthyite measure to distinguish American democracy from godless Communism. True conservatives, then, should be happy to go back to the unreformed, original version, which raises no constitutional issues.
Officially, schools cannot force children to recite the Pledge. But subtle differences in the way the Pledge is presented can make a big difference to how coerced children feel. A new teacher just started announcing the Pledge at a local high school. His predecessor had used the following words:
"America is a land of liberty; it is your right as a citizen not to recite the Pledge of Allegiance. Now, those of you who wish to may stand to recite the Pledge."
Contrast that with the new wording: "You have a right to refuse to participate in reciting the Pledge. Now, stand and recite the Pledge." One official celebrates students' freedom not to join in, the other intimidates them.
But as with many symbolic rows post-911 in America, the issue has been overblown. For most children the Pledge is meaningless; it is hard to believe that it makes many of them feel like outsiders. You could argue that Christians have more to worry about than atheists. Ritualistic incantation degrades references to God: like prayer in schools, it is more likely to produce agnostics than Christians.
The Pledge ban may have irritated conservatives, but it has done nothing to redistribute wealth or improve the quality of education in California. The father, if he really resented the promotion of Christianity, might have done better to give the Christian conservatives more rope.
Harry Brighouse is professor of philosophy and affiliate professor of education policy studies at Wisconsin university, Madison, US