The loss of precision in spoken or written language is not, I suppose, the worst problem we face, compared with so many other distressing developments in our national life. But the consequences can include real political harm. Take, for example, a pesky case on which the Supreme Court will hear arguments on March 24: Elk Grove Unified School District v. Michael A. Newdow, which has generated a great deal of linguistic chaos.
In the summer of 2002 Michael Newdow, a pro se appellee with several bees in his bonnet about family law, religion and government, won a 2-to-1 victory in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, where Judge Alfred Goodwin agreed with him that schoolroom recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance, with the 1954 addition of “under God” to its text, violates the establishment clause of the First Amendment. The Ninth Circuit then amended this decision; the school district appealed; the circuit court refused to rehear the case in a murky fluster of judicial action that showed its members at loggerheads with one another and with another Pledge ruling in the Eleventh Circuit; and judges delivered papers “concurring partly” and “dissenting partly” with their colleagues. The Rehnquist Supreme Court itself is partly to blame for the muddle, since it’s been handing down divided, inconclusive decisions, in this as in other areas, for years.
I’m only an amateur of constitutional history and the Pledge controversy, but you don’t have to be an expert to notice how language gets misused in Newdow. Lawyers, judges and commentators carry on, as they have for decades, without there being much agreement on the meaning of the words they contest or interpret–“Establishment,” say, or “Pledge.” “Prayer.” “God.” Or “under.” Clouds of sanctimonious verbiage billow in the public space–from ardent atheists like the plaintiff and his supporters, and from hypocritical Christian Republicans who are eager to have this case heard at the highest level.
To cut through the semantic fog, we can start by asking, What is the Pledge of Allegiance and where did it come from? Grammar school is where you’re supposed to learn not only how to write and speak (the grammar part) but also the words and texts of our shared civic life. No surprise, then, that it was a schoolteacher, Francis Bellamy, who in 1892 arranged to have children observe the 400th anniversary of Columbus’s landing with a little ceremony that centered on a “pledge of allegiance” to the Stars and Stripes that he had written. (It nowhere mentioned God.) Bellamy, chairman of a committee of state superintendents of education, was able to insure that his mini-liturgy of American triumphalism was installed as a regular feature of public-school life.
A utopian socialist like his cousin the novelist Edward Bellamy, he composed the Pledge, he explained, in “an intensive communing with salient points of our national history, from the Declaration of Independence onwards; with the makings of the Constitution…with the meaning of the Civil War; with the aspiration of the people.” He had wanted to segue from “one nation indivisible” (“we must specify that it is indivisible, as Webster and Lincoln used to repeat in their great speeches”) to “the historic slogan of the French Revolution which meant so much to Jefferson and his friends, ‘Liberty, equality, fraternity'”–but he realized one couldn’t celebrate equality in American life: that “would be too fanciful, too many thousands of years off in realization.” Regretfully, he omitted the middle term, though he thought the other two were safe and sound: “we as a nation do stand square on the doctrine of liberty and justice for all.” (Did he think that justice insured “fraternity”?) Certainly his bighearted words express a more attractive national ideal than flags have sometimes inspired elsewhere.