by Randolph T. Holhut
American Reporter Correspondent
June 28, 2002
PLEDGING ALLEGIANCE TO WHAT?
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- What took them so long?
That was my reaction to the news that the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled by a 2-1 majority that reciting the Pledge of Allegiance in public schools was unconstitutional because of the words "under God."
Given the current hyper-patriotic and hyper-Christian atmosphere in this country, it took a tremendous amount of guts to make this ruling. It was absolutely the right thing to do, even if virtually every politician in America reflexively denounced the court's decision and all but forced the court to put the ruling on an indefinite hold.
"Under God" was a late addition to the pledge. It wasn't in the original version written by Christian socialist (I know, that sounds like an oxymoron) and Baptist minister Francis Bellamy in 1892. That a pledge to the flag written by a socialist to promote the ideal of political, economic and social equality in America would get turned into a patriotic prayer is just one of the many ironies of American history that we never were taught in school.
The "under God" was added in 1954, at the height of the Cold War, at the urging of the Knights of Columbus, a fairly conservative Catholic men's service organization. The rationale was that the Pledge of Allegiance needed differentiation from similar pledges to the state recited by "godless Communists." But in the rush to enlist God in the battle against the Red hordes, folks forgot about the Constitution and its prohibition against the state establishing an official religion. Hence, the brave, if belated, decision by the 9th Circuit.
That inconvenient fact doesn't seem to matter to the politicians who never miss an opportunity to wrap themselves in the flag while proclaiming their godliness. The Senate, which normally takes its sweet time doing its business, rushed through a resolution condemning the court's ruling less than four hours after it was announced. The House reacted similarly as virtually every lawmaker on Capitol Hill denounced the decision.
Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., called for a constitutional amendment to make sure "under God" stayed in the pledge. Some Republicans brayed loudly about "godless liberal judges," except that the justice that wrote the majority opinion, Alfred T. Goodwin, was appointed to the appeals court by Richard Nixon in 1971.
Attorney General John Ashcroft took time out from rounding up "suspected" terrorists to announce that the Justice Department will request a full hearing by the 9th Circuit. And President Bush took a break from the G8 summit in Canada to say the court's decision was "out of step with the traditions and history of America," a nation that "values our relationship with the Almighty."
Bush's statement overlooks one important thing that the folks who wrote the Constitution didn't - that one's relationship with the Almighty is one's own business and that the government should stay out of religious matters. This nation is not yet a theocracy, despite the best efforts of people like Ashcroft and Bush to make it one. Religion is supposed to be a private matter and the state cannot compel me to be Christian.
But there is a bigger issue about the Pledge of Allegiance than the inclusion of the words "under God." It's the mindless recitation of the pledge every day by bleary-eyed schoolchildren to the point that the words ultimately have no meaning.
"One nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all" is a noble notion and the ideal that this nation is supposed to achieve. We know the reality is much different. We know there are many divisions in this nation - race, class, gender and religious. We know that liberty and justice is often unevenly distributed. And we know that politicians and professional patriots love to make a show of their love of God and country while their actions show that their greater allegiance is in holding on to power by any means necessary.
It would be nice if our leaders spent a little less time worrying about the trappings of patriotism and focused on what real patriotism is about. When they take their oath of office, they solemnly swear to protect and defend the Constitution of the United States. Not the flag. Not the Bible.
We are a nation of laws, and not men. We are a nation that doesn't have an official state religion. We are a nation whose constitution is clear about not blindly compelling people to profess their allegiance to a flag, the Almighty or anything else.
I'd like to think that the 9th Circuit's decision will ultimately stand. Unfortunately, the pressure to ignore common sense and the law in favor of super-heated emotion and wrong-headed beliefs will mean that students will still be reciting the Pledge of Allegiance even as some might start to realize that its words are now a lie in post-Sept. 11 America.< Randolph T. Holhut has been a journalist in New England for more than 20 years. He edited "The George Seldes Reader" (Barricade Books).