The Battle Over the Pledge | The Nation


The Battle Over the Pledge

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For the fundamentalists and their friends in Washington, there are no minor fronts in this political war, and an election is looming. Amicus briefs supporting the school district have poured in from dozens of organizations, including the Senate and House of Representatives, and the governors' offices of California and Idaho. Republican politics have swirled around the case from the get-go. (In 2002, Republicans attacked Governor Gray Davis for not being vigilant enough about the Newdow "threat.") And here comes the American Legion, the Knights of Columbus and the Pacific Legal Foundation, a conservative outfit. Then there's the Christian Legal Society, a group of lawyers who want more Jesus in public debate, whose brief has been joined by the Center for Public Justice, a well-known right-wing group. The Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, proud of its inside dealings with the Bush White House, was a player in the drama to begin with, as was the National Association of Evangelicals, but they are now in the wings. Still, their presence is felt. "You're not going to run into too many people who are smarter than Karl [Rove]," Richard Land, its president, has said. "Karl understands the importance of this segment of his coalition, and I think the President understands it." Looking out for the mother, Sandra Banning, is Kenneth Starr, Solicitor General Olson's pal and former law partner. Now, how did that come about?

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.

The list goes on: Phyllis Schlafly--no party complete without her--of the Eagle Forum Education & Legal Defense Fund; and my favorite, the Rutherford Institute, "a tiny foundation on the far shores of the right wing that advocated a literal interpretation of biblical scripture as a replacement for civil law," as one chronicler described it. We last heard of the Rutherford Institute when it was supplying lawyers for Paula Jones in 1998--lawyers who benefited so nicely from their proximity to friends in Ken Starr's independent counsel office.

Many of these same political activists turned up in November to celebrate President Bush's signing of the "partial birth" abortion ban. About this happy moment, Jerry Falwell, in a burst of characteristic hogwash, wrote:

After having a wonderful time of fellowship with President Bush, the president asked if we could all join hands and pray that God will bless our efforts to preserve life in our land. What an astounding moment this was for me personally. Standing there in the Oval Office I felt suddenly humbled to be in the presence of a man--our president--who takes his faith very seriously and who seeks the prayers of his friends as he leads our nation. Following the prayer, I told President Bush the people in the room represent about 200,000 pastors and 80 million believers nationwide, who consider him not only to be our president but also a man of God. He humbly turned to me and replied, "I'll try to live up to it."

The bold calculation of electoral power, the canny conflation of a sectarian agenda with divisive presidential politics, the syrup of piety poured over both--this is Bush's America, a country where fundamentalism thrives in the chaos of non-meaning in secular public space. Richard Land has said, "We're in this for the long haul, and the people on the other side had best understand...we're winning." I'm not sure about that, but to prove him wrong we have to be sure we say what we mean, and mean what we say--on the campaign trail, in Congress and in our courts.

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