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The Battle Over the Pledge | The Nation

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The Battle Over the Pledge

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Fundamentalist Protestants and conservative Catholics oppose Newdow because they want this godly Pledge affirmed as constitutional, but the truth is that they also believe it favors religion--and should. They are confident that America functions "under God," that the Founders believed this and that we should say so out loud. Take the Roman Catholic Justice Antonin Scalia. Blithely misinterpreting two centuries of post-Enlightenment political philosophy, he claims "that government--however you want to limit that concept--derives its moral authority from God," that this was "the consensus of Western thought until very recent times. Not just of Christian or religious thought, but of secular thought regarding the powers of the state. That consensus has been upset, I think, by the emergence of democracy." His bizarre argument appeals to "people of faith" not to resign themselves to this deplorable "tendency of democracy to obscure the divine authority behind government" but "to combat it as effectively as possible." Americans have already done this, he claims, "by preserving in our public life many visible reminders that--in the words of a Supreme Court opinion from the 1940s--'we are a religious people, whose institutions presuppose a Supreme Being.'" (It was Justice William Douglas in 1952, but never mind.) Look at "In God We Trust" on our coins and in our courtrooms, he says; "one nation, under God" in our Pledge of Allegiance, "the opening of sessions of our legislatures with a prayer."

About the Author

Elisabeth Sifton
Elisabeth Sifton, senior vice president of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, is the author of The Serenity Prayer: Faith and...

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Book publishers have always predicted that the end was nigh. When it does come they will have only themselves to blame.

True, the Founders believed that all humanity lived "under God," but, as Jackson knew and evidently Douglas did not, as people of faith know and evidently atheists do not, this abstract deism in no way resembles the belief that God created the United States and speaks through its institutions. As good eighteenth-century deists the Founders respected the concept of an Almighty Being under whose aegis and according to whose laws the world turns, but they risked their lives for the principle of government created not by divine powers but by ordinary people using their human intelligence and reason. The US Constitution and Bill of Rights, which never mention God, are the great and crowning glories of the secular Enlightenment.

All too many interpreters since 1954--deaf to these distinctions and trying to be broad-minded--have said, along with Eisenhower, that public mention of God, which is considered anodyne, should be permitted out of fidelity to our national origins. So fine a Justice as William Brennan argued nonsensically that "ceremonial deistic" language is constitutionally permissible because it has become essentially meaningless. These weak proponents of "In God We Trust" rhetoric, unwittingly enslaved to imprecision of meaning, do little to combat the blunt reactionary arguments that distort our Founders' beliefs.

There are other angles to worry about. Thanks to the Barnette decision, no child can be compelled to recite the Pledge, but Newdow says that merely hearing the word "God" in it makes an atheist feel excluded from the polity whose citizens "worship God." The Court must decide whether this aural experience is indeed coercive. Newdow's victimization thesis is popular: Think how much of our culture today attributes high moral value to claims of oppression, exclusion, exploitation. Yet contrary to what Newdow says, the Pledge of Allegiance doesn't begin to express the spiritual nature of most Americans' civic life.

The meaning of the word "God" is also up for grabs: Atheists flail about trying to define the abhorrent thing, while Judge Goodwin petulantly imagines it as a singular Judeo-Christian noun offensive to polytheists. His view seems more opinion than fact, as lawyers say, but he has supporters.

Secularists also argue that since prayer is banned in public schools and the Pledge has become a sort of prayer, it should be banned, too. Here again we're in the realm of non-meaning. To pledge is "to recognize the obligation of fidelity" to something, in this case "the Flag of the United States and the Republic for which it stands"--self-evidently a secular act. This is very different from making "an earnest and devout entreaty of a deity," effecting "a spiritual communion with God as in praise, thanksgiving, contrition or confession"--a religious act. The Pledge of Allegiance would be a prayer (or oath, as its atheist opponents and military supporters often describe it) only if the flag itself is worshiped as a symbol of transcendent authority. This may be happening, of course.

Meanwhile, millions of Americans who are religious but not fundamentalist (one reliable poll says roughly half of us), including Christians, Jews, Muslims and Buddhists, are just as edgy as atheists are about the God talk, and they deplore what we might call the Scalia-Falwell position. A Baptist minister in the South recently wrote, echoing TR, "Giving lip service to God does not advance faith, it cheapens it. It takes the language of faith and reduces it to mere political rhetoric. Language that has the power to heal and mend should never be treated so callously." The voices of millions of believers who dislike noisy declarations of faith in the public square and noisy ministers in the White House have not (yet) been heard. The middle ground, where many of us still dwell, as our deist Founders did, wishing to honor both the life of faith and the idea of a secular government, is treated as if it had disappeared.

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