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The Pledge Question
Written June 29, 2002

It was a controversial court decision.  Most Americans disagreed with it.  Therefore, practically all politicians also disagreed with it.  Such a universally despised decision must have some merit.

On Wednesday, June 26, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit ruled unconstitutional the Pledge of Allegiance's reference to America as one nation "under God."  California schoolteachers are required to lead children in the Pledge.  Two of the three judges said that that violates the First Amendment, which prohibits the establishment of a state religion.  (I understand that a child could decline to recite the Pledge, but then his classmates would shun him as unpatriotic.)

The decision is likely to be overturned, but in the meantime, the White House called it "ridiculous."

Representative Tom DeLay called it "absurd."

Senator Joseph Lieberman called it "senseless."

Senator John Edwards called it "wrong."

Senator Tom Daschle called it "just nuts."

Immediately after the court's decision, House members rushed to the Capitol steps to loudly recite the Pledge of Allegiance.  The Senate was so outraged that a resolution expressing full support for the Pledge passed 99-0.  The next morning, almost all the members of both houses actually showed up in their respective chambers for the daily Pledge recitation.

To question a unanimous Congress is, by definition, to be politically incorrect.  But here goes.

Some Queries

Firstly, is it right to force our children to take a loyalty oath every morning?

I am reminded of a pledge mandated by another government, recited by ten-year-old children as they saluted their flag.  "In the presence of this blood banner, which represents our Fuehrer, I swear to devote all my energies and my strength to the savior of our country, Adolf Hitler.  I am willing and ready to give up my life for him, so help me God."

Secondly, if we claim that our nation is "under God," to which God are we referring?  Hitler's God?  Some other God?  Christians will naturally assume that the Christian God is meant.  Could "under God" also include Allah or Vishnu?  Christians might cringe at the thought that our nation is under Allah or Vishnu, or in other words, that Muslims or Hindus could be part of our nation.  Nevertheless, they are.  But if we declare that "under God" really means "under Jesus," then we really are establishing a state religion that excludes the Jews and all other non-Christians.

Thirdly, in recent times, what nation has considered itself more "under God" than Taliban-ruled Afghanistan?

Changing Customs

In disagreeing with the court's ruling, Attorney General John Ashcroft said, "This decision is directly contrary to two centuries of American tradition."  But is it?

The Pledge of Allegiance was not written until 1891.  It originally included a stiff right-arm salute, which was discontinued in 1942 because that was how Nazis saluted.  Then, to show that our nation was better than the godless Communists, "under God" was added in 1954, which means that the controversial part of the Pledge is less than half a century old.  I myself recall having to remember to add the two new words to the middle of the memorized sentence that we repeated each morning.

It is probably a different tradition to which Ashcroft refers, the concept that the United States was founded as a Christian nation.  Our founding fathers professed faith in God and even mentioned him in the Declaration of Independence, the argument goes, so we should do likewise.

One problem with that is that a majority of the founding fathers believed not in the Christian God but in the Deist version, referred to as "nature's God" or "Providence."  There's even a technical term, ceremonial Deism, for routinely invoking God's name in public ceremonies without any real religious meaning.

Another problem:  According to today's standards, not everything that the founding fathers did is worthy of emulation.  For example, many owned slaves.  Also, most believed that even in a democracy, the people could not be trusted to elect the President or the Senators.  When writing the Constitution, they arranged for those high officials to be chosen by the Electoral College and the state legislatures respectively.

The Constitution is admirable, but the men who drafted it were not perfect.  We have found it necessary to add 27 amendments over the years.  If the Bible were subject to correction and updating at the same rate, we should have amended it 211 times since the Council of Nicea.  ("Amendment CLXXXVII.  Resolved:  The provision in Leviticus 27:2-4, that women are worth only three-fifths as much as men, is hereby repealed.")

Official Motto

If it is tradition we want, why not return to the original national motto, approved by the founding fathers in 1776 as part of the Great Seal of the United States?  "E pluribus unum" (or in English, "Out of many, one") served for many years.  It was replaced as the official motto only relatively recently.

The story began in 1861, when a Pennsylvania minister wrote to the Secretary of the Treasury ("You are probably a Christian") to suggest "the recognition of the Almighty God in some form on our coins."  Secretary Salmon Chase came up with the formulation "In God we trust," which appeared on coins in 1864.  Nearly a century later in 1956, during the Cold War, Congress declared "In God we trust" the national motto, and it first appeared on paper money in 1957.

A nation whose lately adopted motto is "In God we trust" is at risk for both arrogance and laziness.

We can arrogantly claim that we are God's people and that he favors people born in these fifty states above all other people in the world.  Therefore, anything we choose to do is right.  If other nations of other faiths disagree with us, they know where they can go.

We can lazily say that since God is in charge of human events, we can trust in him and make no special efforts ourselves.  I recall reading a letter to the editor that explained why we don't have to take any steps to reduce the risk of nuclear war, because God would never allow such a war to happen.

A better motto, I think, is the "E pluribus unum" that our founding fathers chose.  Originally, of course, it referred to the thirteen colonies that united into a single nation.  But it can also refer to the American melting pot.  From all over the world, many peoples have come together to become one united people in this land of freedom.  We are people of every race and color.  We are people of every faith and of none.  Out of many, one — with liberty and justice for all.



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