Pledging their bets

The ruckus over whether Americans should pledge allegiance 'under God' had little to do with religion.

Helen Searls

Topics Politics

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On 26 June 2002, the San Francisco-based Ninth Circuit Federal Appeals Court declared the Pledge of Allegiance, recited each morning in nearly all of America’s public classrooms, to be unconstitutional.

The case was brought to court by Michael Newdow, an atheist, who told CBS News that as a parent he had the constitutional right ‘to be able to send my kid to school without government thrusting its religious dogma down her throat’.

By a majority of two to one the court agreed. The majority ruled that when recited in public schools the Pledge as it is currently worded violates the First Amendment, which demands that the state must not endorse or promote religion.

‘In the context of the Pledge’, Judge Alfred T Goodwin wrote for the court, ‘the statement that the United States is a nation “under God” is an endorsement of religion’. The court panel said the reference to God is equivalent to a declaration ‘that we are a nation “under Jesus”, a nation “under Vishnu”, a nation “under Zeus”, or a nation “under no god”‘.

In the 31-page ruling the court noted that Congress added the words ‘under God’ to the Pledge as recently as 1954. Before that time, the Pledge was simply ‘I pledge allegiance to my flag, and to the republic for which it stands, one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all’. Only after a campaign by a conservative Catholic group, the Knights of Columbus, at the height of the Cold War, did Congress bring God in. The court said the sole purpose of the addition was to ‘advance religion in order to differentiate the United States from nations under communist rule’.

Straightforward as it may seem, the ruling caused a tidal wave of political reaction in Washington. President Bush twice took time out from the G8 meeting in Canada to condemn the decision as ‘ridiculous’ and to platform his own religiosity and patriotism. Senate majority leader Democrat Tom Daschle called the decision ‘just nuts’.

Within hours of the ruling, the US Senate suspended all business to vote 99-0 in favour of an emergency resolution supporting the Pledge. Not to be outdone, 100 members of Congress gathered on the Capitol steps to recite the Pledge and joined in a rendition of God Bless America for good measure.

The following day, the media was full of directors of school boards vying with two-bit mayors to assert their patriotism and find the harshest terms to denounce the decision. In Virginia, the Governor’s office lost no time in declaring that not only will schools continue to recite the Pledge, now every Virginia school will be required to hang a poster with the words ‘In God We Trust, the National Motto, enacted by Congress in 1956’.

Such was the opposition that by the close of business the following day Judge Goodwin had taken the extraordinary step of putting a hold on his own ruling.

Given the swift and vitriolic denunciation the decision sparked from almost every quarter, you could be forgiven for thinking that the court had ruled that US children pledge allegiance to al-Qaeda or Saddam Hussein.

But the court ruling was in fact very modest. The judges did not, as many politicians suggested, call for a total ban on the Pledge of Allegiance in the classroom – only that schools should return to the pre-1954 Pledge by dropping the words ‘under God’. And given the current make-up of the US Supreme Court, even this reform is likely to be overturned on appeal.

The USA is a peculiarly religious nation, with maybe as many as 90 percent of people expressing a deep belief in God. But religiosity was not the sole factor behind the furore. Instead, the ruling provided an opportunity for politicians to appear resolute and forceful in a world where many of the old certainties seem to be crumbling away. Public policy is becoming more complicated and contested by the day.

After the 11 September attacks, politicians want to appear both pious and patriotic. But in a post-Enron, post-WorldCom world, where institutions like the FBI, the CIA, the US bishops and even Martha Stewart have become the object of public ridicule, it has become hard to know where politicians should pin their colours. In such a climate, it is little wonder that US politicians were so ready to take a time out from normal business to back the Pledge. After all, the Pledge of Allegiance is as American as apple pie. Surely here was an issue on which there could be no ambiguity.

Ultimately, however, this saga revealed the feeble nature of American patriotism and religious belief today. While some, like President Bush, have attempted to hold the line and reassert traditional notions of God and the nation, others have put up a more frail defence.

Some have claimed the Pledge should not be dismantled because (as the specific nature of the deity is unspecified) it is multicultural. Others, like the New York Times, have dismissed the affair as a storm in a teacup, because the Pledge is said by rote so much as to render it all but meaningless.

What is most revealing, however, is what actually takes place in schools. Schoolchildren are in fact under no obligation to recite the Pledge. In fact, past Supreme Court rulings ensure that children who opt not to say the Pledge for whatever reason have to be made to feel comfortable and included by the rest of the school body. Jehovah’s Witnesses are directed by church elders not to say the Pledge, as they pledge allegiance only to their god. Buddhists, who do not believe in a single deity, are told to stay silent during the ‘under God’ phrase but to join in the rest.

When I paid a recent visit to my son’s public school, the Pledge of Allegiance was booming over the public address system. Everyone stopped what they were doing, mumbled incoherently and looked bored. But this was followed by another pledge: the Earth Day pledge. Unlike the Pledge of Allegiance, this was said with real gusto and feeling.

Perhaps this is the Pledge’s destiny – to become the lesser pledge among many. If this is the case, perhaps campaigners like Mr Newdow who are set on kicking religious dogma out of our schools have their eyes on the wrong ball.

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Topics Politics


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