My son's grandmother had a pet peeve, which has since become one of mine.
We'd watch a major-league baseball game, and she'd say "Look at them! Where were they raised? Don't they know that when you listen to the National Anthem, you stand at attention? They're saluting the flag, for pete's sake. If they were in the army, they'd stand at attention to salute the flag, or an officer. So what's with this head-bowing? They need to go back to school!"
Either that, or a time machine. We old-schoolers remember well that "stand at attention" was standard etiquette for saluting the flag and listening to patriotic songs. Hand over the heart, head raised, eyes toward the flag... Hats off for guys, of course. And woe unto anyone who didn't get the memo.
For Granny, school days were in the 1920s and 1930s, when patriotism was a very big deal. She was first-generation American; both her parents had come over from southern Europe. And in the 1960s, when I got my education, teachers were mainly from her era, so the lesson was handed down.
In addition, where I grew up, religion stayed in the background. Most people in my neck of the woods were either Catholic or Jewish. Worship was on the Sabbath (Saturday or Sunday, depending); public school was Monday through Friday, and it was secular. People didn't say grace at the school lunch table, and rarely said it in their homes, if my circle of acquaintances was any indication. So there wasn't a lot of head-bowing on the average day.
Things have changed quite a bit since those innocent days. When the "religious right" began to flex its public muscle in the late 1970s, there was a lot of insistence that everything that was wrong in the U.S. could be traced to the Supreme Court putting the kibosh on religious exercises (prayer and bible study) in the public schools. You wouldn't know it to listen to the average preacher, but many kids all over the U.S. breathed an enormous sigh of relief back in the early 1960s. They no longer had to follow one standard during school and another with their families. Students no longer had glaring proof of religious differences between themselves and their classmates, and most students really didn't care about religion. Their parents didn't seem to, either. It was nice for kids to stay in class, rather than feeling compelled to stand out in the hallway while everybody else said prayers. Imagine how it must have been for teachers, no longer having to double as preachers.
As a Catholic, I fell under the "release time for religious instruction" law that came up as a compromise. An hour or so before school officially ended on Tuesday, I'd leave Northside, hop on a bus, and be driven to St. Bernard's, where I'd sit in a different (much more orderly) classroom and hear all about Jesus. We started that class with prayer, and yes, we bowed our heads then. And that was that, until either the following Tuesday, or the next Sunday -- if our family bothered going to mass. Many, many weekends, we didn't.
It was only after moving to the south that I discovered how unshakeable the grip of religion still was on public school students. Sure, math, science and reading standards were dropping like stones, but nobody was interested in that, as long as there was an opportunity for "See you at the flagpole" or a nice controversy over slogans on t-shirts or a debate over evolution being taught in science class. I've been to church (the old-timey kind) down in Georgia and Tennessee, and sorry, it isn't so much fun that you want to do it 7 days a week.
But a vocal minority of parents sincerely believe that it is, and rather than make the financial sacrifice and enroll their kids in a private religious school, they send their kids to a public school and work tirelessly to make them (and everybody else's kids) feel right at home, like they've never left church. Now it's virtually impossible to visit any public school in the south without being exposed to some form of religion. In many cases, it's blatant. My son's high school Spanish teacher one year filled class time with videotapes of her pastor preaching sermons -- in English. She'd say "Praise Jesús" anytime a student gave a correct answer. Most assemblies involved a guest preacher exhorting the students about abstinence, tithing, or the need to resist "spiritual oppression." After 9/11, the mix was expanded to welcome military recruiters and veterans, who would invariably lead off with prayer, and then go on to contrast "good American Christians .... and Jews, yes, we mustn't forget Jews" with "terroristic godless Muslims." I'm sure there are plenty of public school kids in the south whose Muslim parents (devout or otherwise) coached them to say they were Lebanese Christians and go along with the crowd.
More recently, we've seen controversy in which public-school coaches and cheerleaders have been asked to refrain from displaying banners with bible verses or leading Christian prayer over the loudspeakers. They've been asked because of costly lawsuits being brought by groups that believe equal public education means not imposing anyone's subjective religious standards or tradition on others who may not be inclined to accept them.
But until we get back to sanity, many of these public-school kids who never learned the difference between a flag and a cross are going to go with the head-bow, and if you want to see what they look like, just switch on a MLB game and wait for the music to start.