Exorcizing the Pledge

Michael Newdow has returned to court, demanding that “under God” be expunged from the text of the Pledge of Allegiance. He has once again won the initial round, and it seems certain the case will again make its way to the Supreme Court. And this time the Court will not be able to slither out of it. Or at least they won’t have the same trap door through which they slunk last time. If they want to sidestep the issue this time, they will have to find some new expedient. Personally, I am pretty darn sure the justices will rule against Newdow on some pretext or another. Perhaps they will appeal to that earlier ruling that prayers opening sessions of Congress are okay because they represent mere “ceremonial deism,” not any living faith. Now there’s a proud thing: insincere religious formalism. Institutionalized “vain repetition.” How robust! What courage!

If, by some miracle, the Court rules for Newdow (sorry for the “miracle” reference, Mike!), there will be hell to pay. In the ensuing hysteria, patriotism will again become confused with religious zeal. And it is the prospect of such furor, such divisiveness and outrage, that will make the Court want to rule in favor of the conservative majority. On many issues, I happen to belong to the conservative majority. I only believe what I see on FOX News. I’m not kidding. But on this one, I have to side with my atheist buddies. I think Newdow is right, and “under God” ought to drift softly to the cutting room floor. Why?

If the operative word is “divisiveness,” it would be well to remember that the text of the Pledge (written by Francis Bellamy, a Baptist minister!) originally lacked it, and that the phrase was interpolated in 1954, precisely in order to stick it to atheists! The advocates of the filioque in question wanted to paint American atheists with the tarry brush of “godless Communism.” So Newdow’s foes have it exactly backwards when they allege that he is trying to secularize an originally sacred oath. It is time to reinstate atheists as good Americans.

You might object that it doesn’t much matter what the text of the Pledge once meant. It doesn’t matter what the intention of the “under God” interpolator was. As a good postmodernist, shouldn’t I admit the text means what it means to readers today? The “under God” phrase is a beloved part of the Pledge for a whole generation, and to them the proposed omission of it signals an attack on the American religious identity.

To tell you the truth, I almost sympathize with that approach. I do not think my atheist allies have any business trying to eradicate all public tokens of Christian faith. Nor would they have the right to show up in Italy, with its secular government, and demand the elimination of all vestiges of Popery. Try showing up in Thailand and organizing a campaign to eradicate public Buddhism. Get real: it’s part of the culture. And so are Christmas trees and manger scenes here in the USA. Even if Christianity died out completely, Americans would still celebrate Christmas and display the accoutrements, just as we have garden statues of Hercules and pictures of Hermes delivering flowers.

But textual criticism of the Pledge is not such a case. In this one, we are dealing with the same principle as posting the Ten Commandments in public school classrooms. What was wrong with that? Simply that it would amount to the government commanding kids to worship the Hebrew God. Tough luck, Johnny Muslim, Amy Buddhist, Betty Atheist, Andy Hindu! This is not some kind of far-fetched technicality! What do you think it means when it says: “I am the LORD [i.e., Jehovah, Yahve] your God. You shall have no other gods but me.” I wonder if advocates of posting the Decalogue have ever taken the time to read the commandments they so piously espouse!

This is not like singing Christmas carols and Hanukah songs in public schools, where admittedly Hindu or atheist or Jehovah’s Witness kids might feel like wallflowers, but it does them no harm. I hated every minute of those Nuremburg-style pep rallies in high school, but I didn’t expect to be excused from going. The difference is that, if you post the Ten Commandments, the non-Yahvists in the classroom are being commanded by the US government to worship another deity and not theirs. That’s an “establishment of religion” if there ever was one. I realize the government flunkies who want to post the Commandments do not intend this; they’re just too thick-headed to see what they’re doing. But that doesn’t mean the rest of us have to be.

And it’s the same damn thing with the Pledge of Allegiance. If I have to take this oath in its present form, I am being told that in order to be a patriotic American I must also be a pious Christian, Jew, or Muslim. Look, Buddhists don’t worship “God,” and it’s a pretty big stretch to say that Hindus do either. And don’t forget atheists, who are not some marginal klatch like flat-earthers who needn’t be taken into account. To require the Pledge of Allegiance with “under God” attached is saying, “C’mon kids, it’s time to pledge our loyalty to Church and State.”

Some Christian bullies like to split hairs and contend that the Constitution’s promise not to “establish a religion” means no more than that the government cannot give official status (financial support) to the Presbyterians but not the Methodists. But it hardly stops there. What is the principle at stake? Surely it is just as unconstitutional to endorse Western religions over Eastern ones.

What will happen if the Supreme Court does eventually bite the bullet and rule in Newdow’s favor? I believe it will spell the death of the Pledge. Continuing to use it, only without the offending line, is going to create furor in schools across the country. Angry parents will tell their kids to say “under God” anyway, and teachers will have to tell them not to. It will be a shouting match. Some schools will insist on keeping the Pledge as it is, and the government will start firing teachers. And in order to end the strife, schools will simply retire the Pledge. Writing a new, politically correct one would only exacerbate the problem.

It will be a shame to lose the Pledge, because it is healthy for the Republic to inculcate patriotism among the rising generations. But then there are other ways to do that, including the singing of anthems and the observance of national holidays. But I am willing to let the chips fall where they may. Newdow is right, and the nonsectarian purity of the Pledge of Allegiance ought to be restored, even if theists lose interest in saying it.

So says Zarathustra
Robert M. Price
October 2005


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