Belief in God is not the issue in the continuing brouhaha over the constitutionality of the Pledge of Allegiance. Rather, it’s the government’s endorsement of a monotheistic God. That and the gutlessness of politicians in failing to support the right of two brave justices to dare invoke the spirit of the First Amendment in a thoughtful, if controversial, ruling. Instead of appealing for calm debate, our political leaders have demagogically stoked the passions of a mob. Is it any wonder that nuts are now sending death threats to both the jurists and the parent who brought this case to court?
True political leaders would have cautioned against intemperate attacks on the court and urged respect for the judicial evaluation of a profound and complex constitutional issue. They also would have pointed out that the Constitution requires the courts to be on continual guard against official actions that undermine the separation of church and state.
Why the hysteria now, when the decision is on hold pending appeal? The conservative US Supreme Court is likely to reverse the circuit court. But whatever one’s position on the pledge, the shrill overreaction by a bipartisan chorus of politicians and pundits is alarming. "Just nuts" was the contemptuous reaction of Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle, who added that the Pledge of Allegiance affirmed "our belief in a supreme being." Does Daschle intend by "our belief" to deny the patriotism of those Americans who do not endorse the senator’s monotheism? Or does he believe that the second-grader who is Buddhist or Hindu or, God forbid, simply more absorbed in learning to read than contemplating the unknowable should have to mumble the proscribed words for the sake of national unity? Should a teacher who is a freethinker or a deist, as were many of the country’s earliest patriots, be forced to lie to her students by being required to lead them in the oath?
It was in consideration for such rights and protections of the individual that Ninth Circuit justices Alfred T. Goodwin and Stephen R. Reinhardt held that the "under God" clause, which Congress added to the pledge in 1954 under the pressure of McCarthyism, violated the US Constitution’s prohibition on establishing a state religion.
In no way is this an anti-religious position; it is a defense of religious freedom from state control. A school district is "conveying a message of state endorsement of a religious belief when it requires public school teachers to recite, and lead the recitation, of the current form of the pledge," Goodwin, a Nixon appointee to the bench, wrote in his decision.
Moreover, when students invoke by rote the image of an almighty that we as a nation are said to live under, it trivializes consideration of religious and spiritual issues, as well as what it means to be a true patriot. Who knows what’s going on in some child’s mind as he chants the magical "God" word that none dare question–it could be God as a Mighty Morphin Power Ranger.
Instead of a blind loyalty oath to God and country–as defined by Congress and the President–the schools should be encouraging study of the complex relationship between religion, in all its forms, and civic society. They can begin with the example of the Afghanistan-based terrorists who also claimed to be living in a nation "under God."
The brilliance of our Constitution is that it protects the personal rights of the individual, including students and teachers, against the conformist pressures of the majority. The founders had ample experience with the particularly coercive effect of a dominant religion and for that reason inserted the ban on official religion in the First Amendment.
The framers of the Constitution were veterans of a revolution against a king whose divine right to rule the colonies was sanctioned by the official church of England. The Fourth of July, now upon us, should therefore be an occasion to celebrate the inalienable right of the individual to rebel against the dictates of state-sponsored religion.
What the Constitution requires, and what two highly experienced justices attempted to affirm, is the principle that the government ought never be allowed to arbitrarily compel an individual American’s allegiance to anyone else’s notion of God.