March 25, 2004

New Enemy, New (Old) Pledge

by PG

De Novo darling Dahlia Lithwick concludes her report on the Newdow oral arguments with,

The case is a mess because, whatever you may think about God or the pledge, if you really apply the case law and really think "God" means "God," then Newdow is right. But Newdow can't be right. Can he?

Why can't he? Indeed, there may even be a reason apart from the First Amendment to remove "under God" from the Pledge of Allegiance.

The phrase "under God" was added by Congress in 1954 as part of the Cold War campaign to distinguish America from the Soviet Union and China, at a time when the Iron Curtain already had fallen across Europe and the U.S. was striving to keep Communism out of Latin America, Africa, Asia and the Middle East. Catholicism was a strong force in Latin America, and Islam in the Middle East, so one aspect of Communism that American propaganda often emphasized was its compulsory atheism. Accept Communism, and you'd lose God.

Whether putting "In God We Trust" on our money, or replacing our national motto E Pluribus Unum with the same, actually aided the fight against leftist totalitarianism is debatable. At the time, President Eisenhower's pastor, Rev. George M. Docherty, sermonized that the pledge "could be the pledge of any country [...] I could hear little Moscovites repeat a similar pledge to their hammer-and-sickle flag with equal solemnity." Apparently American religiosity was what made us special.

But not anymore. Today the war on terrorism centers on fighting the Islamic world's slide into theocracy and religious war, not on fighting atheistic Communists. The murderers of 9/11 and the Bali and Madrid bombings give up their lives in the belief that they are serving God and that their sacrifice somehow will lead to a return of religious purity and an ideal world run on principles of Islamic fundamentalism.

It is precisely the forcing of religious doctrine -- the supposed Koranic commandment of women's second-class citizenship, the press toward "holy war" -- that the United States and other democracies must stand against. We are not trying to be holier than Taliban-run Afghanistan, or the current regimes of Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. With a few lamentable exceptions, we are not trying to argue that "our God is stronger than their God."

Instead, we are trying to show that the freedom to be veiled or unveiled, prayerful or atheistic, is as superior to coerced religion now as it was to coerced non-religion 50 years ago. We are not promoting Christianity or any other religion. We are promoting secular American values, the "liberty and justice" that are as absent from theocratic Iran as they are from communist North Korea. I disagree with the Bush Administration's way of doing it, but at least they have taken up the right cause.

So where do the hastily-injected invocations of God from the Cold War era fit into this new paradigm? People who want God to be a mandated aspect of public life can find much more of Him/Her/It in the oppressive regimes of the Middle East than they can in even the most religious parts of the U.S.

Perhaps we should take the opposite course. We can distinguish ourselves from the opposition, this time, not by declaring "in God we trust" (you certainly have to trust God a lot to fly into a building for Him), but "from many" -- races, religions, nationalities, languages, even sexual orientations and gender identifications -- "one" nation. Those who see this nation as not being "under God" should not be excluded from affirming their secular belief in "one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all."

March 25, 2004 01:37 PM | TrackBack

"This case is a mess, and not just because of the underlying custody issue, and not just because of the 11,000 outrageous "tests" the court has cooked up for Establishment Clause cases, and not just because of the serious possibility that it all ends in a 4-4 tie. The case is a mess because, whatever you may think about God or the pledge, if you really apply the case law and really think "God" means "God," then Newdow is right. But Newdow can't be right. Can he?"

I'm having trouble understanding how that statement isn't contradictory. I agree with her that there are a mess of tests for the EC; however, that given, how can she say that if "you really apply the case law ... Newdow is right?" I don't think the jump from Weisman to this case is that clean cut.

That aside, as hollow as the Pledge has become these days, I still think it's a bit creepy that we actually have a little speech that students must recite in order to pay homage to their nation. People can, and do, show their patriotism in many other, more meaningful ways.

Oh, and atheists need to lighten up: there's too much of a persecution complex going on in America.

Posted by: Brian at March 25, 2004 02:25 PM

"One of the thorns in this case is that supporters of the pledge say the words 'under God' are political, historical, ceremonial—anything but religious."

That may be true, but what then, if not related to religion, is the historical, political or ceremonial significance of the phrase? Is reciting the phrase merely a tradition?

I am not saying that I think the phrase "under god" unconstitutionally promotes religious practice. Religious practice, I would think, entails a certain level of belief--the words "under god" could probably be spoken without any belief in its meaning. I am just interested in an explanation as to the purpose of the phrase, if a religious purpose is ruled out.

Posted by: Sean S at March 25, 2004 03:36 PM

My First Amendment objections to "under God" are teased out here. As for whether the Pledge itself ought to be recited, I think it's a pretty good little speech, provided that teachers try to explain the meaning of the words so kids understand what they're saying. It's not just about patriotism in the "my country, right or wrong" sense -- there are actual values being affirmed, such as the importance of the Union and the pursuit of "liberty and justice for all."

Posted by: PG at March 25, 2004 04:39 PM

I agree with Brian that the whole principle behind the pledge is creepy. Since "under god" was added specifically to make clear that Americans are not atheists, I think the words should be struck under the First Amendment. But really, kids recite the pledge so mindlessly that I can't imagine that it really has a significant effect on their view of religion. The real problem remains: kids are being taught to mindlessly pledge their allegiance to something. I don't think the pledge is about instilling good values (liberty and justice) in the young, its about promoting allegiance and patriotism. And patriotism is not good in and of itself. In fact, the mindless kind is an overall social harm.

When I was in high school (ten years ago), I created a controversy (and got my first detention notice) by refusing to stand for the pledge. The most interesting part of the experience was discussing it with my eleven-year-old sister. Sitting at the kitchen table, she was trying to figure out what was wrong with saying it by saying it aloud slowly. But she couldn't remember it until she stood up and put her hand on her heart. That is my proof of its mindlessness.

Posted by: Joseph Hovsep at March 26, 2004 11:45 AM

Joseph Hovsep writes, "But really, kids recite the pledge so mindlessly that I can't imagine that it really has a significant effect on their view of religion."

The question is not whether it affects children's views of religion; the issue isn't a Free Exercise one. The question is an Establishment Clause one: does the pledge make it look like the government is encouraging religion, or force children to be exposed to religion, or whatever other question your favorite version of Establishment Clause doctrine asks.

And the answer is probably yes. Kids think it's religious because it is, and they're not stupid. It's generic, and maybe it's minimal, but it's still unquestionably a deliberate invocation of religion.

The problem is nicely summarized by an anecdote a professor of mine told. She had always thought the Pledge issue was silly--until her child came home from school one day and said, "Mommy, guess what! I learned a new prayer in school today!"

It'll be interesting to see what the Supreme Court does with this one.

Posted by: Dave at March 30, 2004 10:18 PM

PG, seems best to me for the teachers not to overly explain the meaning of the pledge. I've heard many times saying they find it unnerving to think about the monotone drone of millions of children reciting the pledge like androids, but I'm less prepared for 3rd grade citizen-soldiers.

Posted by: Kriston Capps at April 2, 2004 07:00 PM
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