It’s no secret that I am not a fan of organized religion. That being said, I think the controversy over this “one nation under God” thing has lost touch with a place I like to call Reality.
There’s a more serious problem with religious controversy in America, but right now it’s little more than a thin fog of tension and ambiguous frustration permeating all the layers of our society. And for that reason, I won’t go into it here. Be warned, though, that the fog is thickening and may prove to be one major pain-in-the-ass not too long from now. A Supreme Court justice has even had to recuse himself from hearing the case I’m about to describe. So yes, it is that serious.
This latest fight over the “separation clause” should be a clue as to what is to come. And here’s the funny part: We have California to thank for it. Funny, eh?
According to California law, schools must begin each day with “appropriate patriotic exercises.” The Pledge of Allegiance is recommended to satisfy the requirement.
Enter Michael Newdow: Sacramento-area resident, emergency room physician, doctor of jurisprudence (that means lawyer, for all you business majors) and single father of one daughter. He is also an atheist. Can you guess what’s coming next?
Well, he seems to have had a problem with his daughter hearing the “one nation under God” bit of the pledge. (That’s right, hearing. This case concerns the student’s hearing the line; the Supreme Court ruled 60 years ago that students are protected under the First Amendment to not salute or recite the pledge.)
And because of a suit that he filed against the Elk Grove Unified School District in California, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals last year caused a hurricane of controversy by siding with Newdow and finding the line unconstitutional.
The court’s ruling was based on previous Supreme Court rulings saying the government was to “pursue a course of complete neutrality toward religion.” What these rulings were on I don’t know, but something sure smells funky to me.
But the appellate court didn’t share my appraisal and thusly upheld the ruling. The school district appealed, and the court agreed to hear its case, but there were only eight of the nine justices involved in the decision.
Justice Antonin Scalia recused himself from the case because of a motion filed by Newdow (he will argue the case before the court). In the motion, Newdow cited news reports of Scalia publicly criticizing the 9th Circuit’s ruling at a religious event in Virginia and used the incident to support his argument that the justice was biased in the matter.
Chief Justice Rehnquist can’t be happy. He’s lost an ally with whom he shares an increasingly contested principle: that the first amendment only forbids the official establishment of a state church. Rehnquist will have a tough time getting the votes necessary to overturn the 9th Circuit’s ruling from the more liberal judges on the court. If the vote comes out 4 to 4, the appellate court’s ruling is affirmed.
And to me, the whole thing stinks. God is defined in no less than four ways in my dictionary. One of those definitions is in reference to Christian Science, but other than that, there is no mention of Catholicism, Islam, Hinduism or anything else one would call “establishment.”
So the word “God” in the Pledge seems to be a bit vague, and therefore is not “respecting an establishment of religion,” as the first amendment reads. Nor is it “prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” And more than anything, it’s a pledge of allegiance to the flag and that which it represents, not God. Aside from the capital G, I really have never had a problem with the line.
I am not fond of organized religion, but at the same time do not put spirituality in that category. It’s the institution I have problems with, not the core message. And that attitude is more in line with what the framers and citizens had in mind in 1791. The United States is (or at least was) undoubtedly a Christian nation, founded on Christian principles, by Christians – for better and worse.
The intent was never to create a nation without spiritual foundations, but rather to protect the masses from a tyrannical church imposing its will unjustly on them.
I’d like to see somebody take issue with what that flag really represents in the modern world, instead of worrying about some line in an antiquated ritual. Or how about this – does anybody else think it’s a little Third Reich-ish to require students to participate in patriotic activities?
Without some sense of spirituality, though, what does a culture have to turn to in order to fulfill more complicated emotional needs? Materialism? Corporate slogans? I’ve seen that hell: It’s called the suburbs. As long as I have my First Amendment rights, I’ll take an obnoxious street preacher or Jerry Falwell’s minions over that any day of the week. At least they’re interesting.