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"…in the fevered eye of persons who most fervently would like to drive all tincture of religion out of the public life of our polity."
Editorial, The War in Context, July 17, 2002
When the US Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals recently ruled that recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance in public schools is unconstitutional they launched a judicial attack on America. With no less resolution than on September 12, the President, Congress and the American people closed ranks to defend a sacred utterance. Was it the faith or the patriotism of most Americans that the court had more greatly offended?
The defenders of the pledge were quick to argue that "one nation under God" does not violate the Constitution's Establishment Clause since it does not align this country to any particular religion. After all, whether you happen to be inclined towards Allah, Brahma or Yahweh, the substitution of a generic "God" would surely insult no one's faith - true enough, perhaps, if we happened to be living in a theocracy. Unfortunately (for the theists) the United States is a pluralistic democracy that provides equal rights to the faithful and the faithless.
Among the many Americans who might not regard this as one nation under God there are thousands of American Buddhists who do not subscribe to belief in any kind of deity; there are plenty of American pantheists who regard the notion of "God" as a tool of patriarchal oppression; there are legions of American atheists who view religion as superstition; and for many American theists, "one nation under God," far from being an expression of faith, is a blasphemous marriage of the divine and the worldly.
The "controversial" opinion of the circuit court was based in part on a previous opinion written by Justice O'Connor. In 1984, she wrote that:
The Establishment Clause prohibits government from making adherence to a religion relevant in any way to a person's standing in the political community. Government can run afoul of that prohibition in two principal ways. One is excessive entanglement with religious institutions . . . . The second and more direct infringement is government endorsement or disapproval of religion. Endorsement sends a message to non-adherents that they are outsiders, not full members of the political community, and an accompanying message to adherents that they are insiders, favored members of the political community.
The constitutional issue surrounding the pledge of allegiance thus boils down to a question about religion. Does the phrase, "under God," when used in a public school imply government endorsement of religion? The circuit court's answer is yes - an opinion that rests firmly on precedent set by the Supreme Court.
Note that Justice O'Connor wrote "government endorsement or disapproval of religion," and not "of a religion." Her concern was clearly that just as government should not favor one faith over another, likewise it should not favor the faithful over the faithless.
While the opinion of the circuit court has been lambasted as an assault on religious freedom, those who see it as such have demonstrated neither appreciation for the Constitution nor high regard for religious freedom itself.
The First Amendment states that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…" The framers recognized that free exercise of religion depends on government remaining utterly removed from the religious sphere. Moreover, the freedom to practice any religion requires the freedom to practice none.
"One nation under God," "In God we trust," and "God bless America" are all expressions that exclude Godless Americans. Do American theists assume that the faithless are so few that they can be disregarded?
When the Bill of Rights was written it was meant to temper the intrusive powers of government. Whoever would allow religion to insert itself into public life will sooner or later subvert democracy. Outside America, Islamism (not to be confused with Islam) and Zionism (not to be confused with Judaism) make it all too plain that a healthy pluralistic democracy can never co-exist with a religious definition of the state. A nation that places its faith in God is a nation that lacks faith in its people.
The title, "...in the fevered eye..." comes from the partially dissenting opinion of Judge Fernandez, in Newdow v. US Congress, June 26, 2002.
©2002 Paul Woodward