L. Neil Smith's
Number 181, July 8, 2002


The Pledge - "One Nation, Under G-d"
by Bill Bunn

Special to TLE

Since the recent decision rejecting the addition of the words "under G-d" to the pledge of allegiance, it appears that many folks have rushed to the defense of just a little bit of government sponsorship of religion. The two-to-one majority of panel of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals looks much like a voice shouting into the wind. But which argument will actually stand up to thoughtful examination?

To my friends who deny that mere monotheism is a religion, but an aspect of many diverse religions, we may ask: Is Christianity also not a religion because it is divided into many diverse denominations, with one or another disputing nearly anything asserted by the mainstream?

If government sponsorship of monotheism is not an intrusion on freedom of religion, then how far may the state go in sponsoring religion before it does intrude? Does the "establishment" clause only mean that the federal government may not actually pay ordained preachers for holding services in consecrated sanctuaries?

With my friends who would protest that freedom of religion does not demand freedom from religion, of course we should agree; but the court decision does not propose to deprive anyone his freedom to believe, to practice, to say, as he believes. It proposes only to restrain the government from sponsoring a religious expression.

To my friends who make much of the fact that perhaps 90% of us believe in some form of a Divine Power, we may ask: Was the bill of rights not written to protect those who lack the political power of the majority? Will you be satisfied to forego, say, trial by jury, whenever the majority believes that you are guilty and ought to be summarily lynched?

To my friends who note that the founders invoked the authority of the Creator in the Declaration of Independence, we should ask: But would those founders have been equally comfortable in proposing that government schools must also invoke His name?

Perhaps their point was this: That our rights are not derived by grant from the state; that, on the contrary, the government derives its just powers by delegation from the people; that our rights existed before the state, and may not rightly be trampled by the state. And imputing the origin of those rights to our Creator is a simple shorthand formulation, one that avoids a more complex and lengthy inquiry into the nature and basis of our rights. And, yes, it's a formulation that many, perhaps most, of the founders were happy to take quite literally. (Were the founders saints, that anything they did must be seen as beyond criticism?)

With my friends who observe that, since the recognition of Divinity has been forbidden in (some) government contexts, that standards of behavior in general have declined, I agree; but correlation is not causation. Perhaps the causes are much more complex.

With my friends who complain that lately Christians have been prohibited from various modest expressions of their belief, we should agree that this is wrong. But surely the government asking the minority (even if it's not a demand) to mouth the words of a belief they do not hold cannot be any part of renewing our freedom of religion.

Freedom of the majority to publicly express their religious beliefs is surely not the same thing as integrating that public expression of religious belief into the practices of the government schools that we all pay for, and which our children can avoid only at great cost.

To my friends who would suggest that the government sponsorship of those two words does not violate the separation of church and state, because, after all, no one is actually required to say those two words (or even any part of the pledge): Couldn't one as well say that, even if the government should tax us all to pay the expenses of an established government church, and even if it should require us all to attend, well, as long as dissenters aren't required to actually say the liturgy, it's OK?

(And of my friends who would protest that this is vastly different, I must ask, please, don't just tell me that a little bit of government- sponsored religion is good; but rather tell me: How is the difference of magnitude critically important, so that just a little bit of government-sponsored religion in government schools is good, even tho much more of what appears to be the same would be bad. Or is it rather your belief that the government should tax us all in order to support the teaching of Christianity?)

Perhaps bringing those two words into government-sponsored instruction cuts away at our attachment to freedom of religion and thought.

Is it the proper role of the government to teach my kids just whatever the majority imagines is good for them to believe, whether that belief is the power of God or the omniscience of science, monotheism or secular humanism?

What worse place could there possibly be for the government to sponsor religion than in the public schools that our children can avoid only at great cost?

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