One Nation, Under Silence

There are larger things to worry about than the Pledge of Allegiance.

“It’s ridiculous,” President Bush told us from his perch in Moscow where he has been meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin. He was speaking of the ruling by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals that forcing school children to recite the Pledge of Allegiance is unconstitutional because of the pledge’s unambiguous declaration that we are one nation “under God.”

Mr. Bush fumed with anger that the court could make such an embarrassingly unpopular ruling while he was not in the country to capitalize on it. The decision “points up the fact that we need common-sense judges who understand that our rights were derived from God,” said Bush. “Those are the kind of judges I intend to put on the bench.”

Bush’s sentiments were matched by members of Congress, Democrat and Republican alike, who insisted that the decision is outrageous. Senator Hillary Clinton (D-NY) commented that she was personally “offended” by the ruling. Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle insisted that the decision was “nuts” and went on to sponsor a bill defending the pledge that swept to the top of the agenda — outranking less important business such as the fragile state of the American economy, the creation of a department of homeland security, and a host of education initiatives — and passed the Senate in a 99-0 vote.

In a moment of great decorum, Senator Robert Byrd (D-WV), purportedly the only member of Congress who was present in 1954 when the words “under God” were added to the pledge, said that he hopes the Senate “will waste no time in throwing this decision back in the face of these stupid judges. That’s what they are, stupid.”

Speaker of the House, J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill), derailed the judges as irresponsible “liberals,” a bold statement to make in the case of Judge Alfred T. Goodwin, who was appointed by President Nixon in 1971.

Members of Congress gathered on the steps outside of the Capitol last week to recite the pledge and to sing “God Bless America,” evoking memories of September 11 when members of Congress had done the same thing.

In September, it was a bold move on the part of America’s elected leadership to make a statement of unity in the face of terror. Last week, it was a pathetic maneuver on the part of two uninspired parties to take advantage of the political opportunities presented by an ill-timed but otherwise sound decision.

Local television stations across the nation scrambled to gobble up the live feed from C-SPAN as our elected leaders declared their continuing dedication to patriotism and to providence. A single voice in favor of the decision could not be found.

All of this bellyaching over 31 words derived from a pledge written by a Socialist former minister over a hundred years ago. Go figure.

Despite the rhetoric, the face remains that Judge Goodwin and Judge Stephen Reinhardt made a decision that was legally sound, particularly in consideration of decisions in recent years by the Supreme Court. Forcing children to declare that we are one nation under God may not be as specifically biased as if we were declaring ourselves one nation under Jesus Christ, but it sure doesn’t fall far from it. There is an implicit understanding in the statement that a Judeo-Christian God is in control of the Universe and that allegiance to America requires allegiance to him.

But even if the claim that God is a neutral term is to be taken for granted, the pledge is still unfair to atheists and agnostics who have just as much right to this country as the most God fearing of Christians. Furthermore, when teachers, paid by tax dollars, lead children in the recitation of the pledge, the state is then taking part in advocating a religious point of view.

It is only the age-old tradition of saying the Pledge that keeps us blind to this reality. Imagine, for instance, if a teacher were to tell a child individually, in the middle of the day, to stand up and declare before the rest of the room that we are all under God. That teacher would likely be unemployed by the end of the day.

It seems to be a common sense observation to make that the pledge is in violation of the First Amendment. However, the question that comes to mind is, how much does it matter? After all, our system is saturated with small but clear violations of the separation of church and state, many of which are more obvious than the one in the pledge.

Our money is coined with the phrase “In God We Trust.” Our judges and witnesses are sworn in with the words “so help me God.” Some Midwestern courts hang the ten commandments from their walls. The Senate and the House of Representatives both begin each day with a state sanctioned prayer. For many years, the Capital was used for Sunday church services. The government pays military and prison chaplains to spread the word of God.

In my home state of Maryland, the government and the Episcopal church are so ingrained that the state legislature sets the boundaries for parishes, and the Governor is the official head of the church within state borders. All of these things are direct violations of the Constitution.

And yet, when it comes down to it, none of them are really that important. The Governor’s position in Maryland’s Episcopal Church is almost entirely ceremonial. Military and prison chaplains perform services that may seem offensive to the non-religious, but are absolutely essential to spiritual morale of many military officers and prisoners. And, honestly, who spends much time reading the backs of coins during the course of the day? Anyone who just raised his or her hand is in desperate need of a hobby.

While national attention has been focused directly on a relatively minor First Amendment issue, more insidious breaches of the separation of church and state have been allowed to skid by in the background. As our national attention was focused on the flag waving frenzy of our Congressional leaders on the steps of the Capitol, the Supreme Court was down the street making a decision that could potentially crippled public education in America.

The Court voted 5 to 4 in favor of allowing a program to continue in which the state of Ohio gives vouchers to parents in the failing Cleveland school district to allow them to put their children into private schools. Since virtually all of the private schools in the Cleveland district are Roman Catholic, the decision results in an endorsement of a program by which the government pays the Roman Catholic Church to educate children in religious matters (all Catholic school children are required to attend religious classes).

The decision not only mocks the spirit of the First Amendment, it also ensures the further decay of Cleveland’s public schools. It could lead to nationwide voucher programs which could have the same effect. It is the most irrational, irresponsible decision that the court has made in years, overshadowed only by the unbearably ill logic of the court’s 2000 decision in Bush vs. Gore which decided the fate of the presidential election.

And yet our political leaders are silent, preferring the sure-fire success of an affirmation of the pledge to the political gamble involved in taking an actual position on the school voucher debate. 2004 is fast approaching, after all, and Washington is full of potential presidential candidates who wouldn’t want to ruin their chances later by criticizing the Supreme Court now.

Our leaders are silent not just on the issue of school vouchers but on a variety of other issues which have been gaining prominence in recent weeks. Civil liberties are endangered by the practices of the Bush administration on a daily basis.

The MCI/Worldcom fraud is likely to become as large a scandal as Enron could have been had Bush not completely dodged the bullet. The Middle East is in shambles and the “war on terrorism” is as vague and ineffective as ever. Millions of Americans are without health care. Unemployment is rising. And yet our elected leaders are vague at best and silent at worst on each of these issues.

The Pledge violates the First Amendment by endorsing religion. In truth, the pledge is almost entirely a constitutional violation because it demands consent of will in spite of our rights as Americans to privacy.

But honestly, in the face of the challenges which face our nation in this era of terror and intolerance, the pledge of allegiance is hardly a primary concern. And while the uninformed and arrogant statements that our leaders have been making on the subject of the pledge are quite disturbing, they pale in comparison to what is not being said about everything else.

Article © 2002 by Jonathan Ratican