Pledge’s Failure to Reflect Constitutional Values
In the Supreme Court last week, Michael Newdow made a courageous -- if unpopular -- stand for the separation of church and state, a fundamental doctrine on which this country prides itself. He may not win in his fight to rid the Pledge of Allegiance of those two pesky words, “under God,” but he made a passionate and precise argument that would put any actual practicing lawyer to shame. Anyone who witnessed his beautifully crafted 30-minute argument and the unwavering nerve evident in his skillful repartee with the justices would undoubtedly agree that his entire crusade is very American and that the founding fathers would have applauded his efforts.
When I was in elementary school, I never understood why the words “under God” were in the Pledge of Allegiance. They just did not seem to go with the flow. Now I know that there is a reason why that particular section seems so choppy. The pledge, as it was originally written, never made any reference to God. It was not until 1954 that Congress, under pressure from religious leaders, voted to add that phrase. This period being the height of the Cold War, the purpose was supposedly to differentiate ourselves from the “godless communists.” According to relatives of Francis Bellamy, the man who wrote the pledge in 1892, the insertion of the phrase likely would have upset Bellamy, who was a Baptist but left his church in dissatisfaction.
The inclusion of “under God” makes absolutely no sense whatsoever. The pledge of allegiance ends with “one nation ... with liberty and justice for all.” That last word is the most important word in the entire pledge. Everybody who lives in this country should feel comfortable saying this pledge since we ostensibly wish to be all-inclusive.
To say that including the phrase is not against the First Amendment is absurd. It is approved by Congress, officially endorsed by the United States of America, and it is recited everywhere, most prominently in classrooms. When something that so represents our country and our government makes a direct reference to God, what could the government possibly be doing other than sponsoring religion? Sure, it is not a specific God that is mentioned and the government is not favoring one religion over another. However, the government is actively endorsing the belief that God exists. To argue that the government is being all-inclusive when referring only to God and not the Christian God or some other specific higher being is akin to relegating all atheists in this country to insignificance. They have the right to peacefully practice their beliefs and not be bombarded with religious allusions from the government.
Proponents of the phrase “under God” often argue that children are not required to recite the pledge in class. However, if you have gone through school recently, you will know that there is no place more intimidating than a classroom full of your peers and your teacher telling you to do this or that. The kid that refuses to stand up and recite the pledge will surely feel estranged from everyone else. This is exactly the kind of pressure that will compel the child to just go along with the crowd and through this, the government is undoubtedly impressing the idea of religion upon these children. Or the children are just clueless and just say the thing because the teacher said so. Then, in that case, the idea of “one nation under God” becomes embedded in their heads even if they receive no other education pertaining to religion.
Another favorite argument from the other side is that it is tradition, so therefore we should just leave it alone. That is the most ludicrous reason I have ever heard. Something has always been done that way, so we should just keep on doing it the same way even if it makes no sense and is inherently unconstitutional? I do not think I even need to further discuss what this country would be like if everyone just accepted that which is distasteful simply because it is tradition.
Another poor excuse often stated is that it is only two words. As Justice David Souter put it, it has become “so tepid, so dilute ... that it should be under the constitutional radar.” But this is precisely why those two words should not be there. People do not question the phrase; they just accept it blindly. In a democratic society, there is no place for blind acceptance.
The people who founded the United States of America were very clear about erecting a wall between the government and religion. The preamble of the Constitution says that the government is formed by “We, the people,” not “We, the people under God.” The Constitution makes no mention of God at all except at the end, near the signatures, where it says “In the year of our Lord.” The first sentence of the First Amendment bans the government from making any laws “respecting the establishment of religion.” The oath with which presidents are sworn in, contrary to popular belief, does not include the phrase “So help me God.” That was ad libbed by George Washington and the presidents since have said it, but the official oath does not include it. The phrase “In God we trust” on currency was only inserted to appease opponents after Abraham Lincoln rejected a proposal to insert Jesus Christ into the Preamble. The founding fathers, many of them deeply religious men living in a religious time, did not simply forget to include the Lord in the Constitution. They deliberately left God out because they believed that all people have the freedom to practice whatever religion they desire and they also have the right not to practice religion.
By eliminating all references to God from the government, one is not endorsing atheism or in any way being less spiritual. By rendering the government religion-free, one is only upholding the belief that all Americans have the right to believe in whatever God they chose or no God at all. Those that believe in God should feel comfortable enough with just believing that they do not need to inject it into something that is meant to express patriotism and to subtly trick all school children into “practicing” religion.
Are there more important issues out there? Sure, of course, there are, but the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals deemed Newdow’s argument credible enough to agree with him and the Supreme Court justices has deemed the issue worthy of their consideration. So, as long as we are on the topic, let’s give it real consideration, open up our minds, and see that Newdow, more than being a wacko atheist or a disgruntled father without custody of his daughter, may perhaps be right.