Leave “The Pledge” alone

The 9th Circuit's official sponsorship of atheism is as repugnant to our tradition of tolerance as official sponsorship of religion.


In 1954, Congress, with the approval of President Eisenhower, put the words “under God” into the Pledge of Allegiance. In 2002, the 9th U. S. Circuit Court of Appeals took them out.

Enacted at the height of the Cold War, the “under God” provision was meant to contrast American values with Communist ones; they were atheists, we were not. Yet the 1950s was also the period in which America came to experience significant religious diversity. Catholics, for one thing, had become an important political force; the next president after Eisenhower would be one. And Jews, the targets of our Nazi enemies during World War II, had finally won acceptance into American life. Such diversity made it impossible to describe America by using terms like Protestant or Christian. God was the best available alternative, broad enough to be inclusive of just about everyone in 1950s America who believed in something.

In declaring the term “under God” unconstitutional, the Court of Appeals held that it was exclusive rather than inclusive; not only were atheists not covered by it, but neither were adherents to all nonmonotheist religions. Should the decision therefore be celebrated as recognizing that we are no longer a Protestant, nor even a Christian, nor even a Judeo-Christian society, but one that has come to offer a place at the public table for all believers, and even for those who do not believe at all?

Alas, matters are not that straightforward. Decisions involving religion have no easy constitutional solutions, which is why courts have disagreed about them so much. Despite the First Amendment ban on an established religion, the United States did have, throughout much of its history, an unofficial establishment; Protestantism governed our culture even if it did not rule our state. Throughout the 19th century, Protestants had no problem insisting that the King James version of the Bible belonged in the public schools even if the pope did not. Lincoln’s great speeches designed to heal the nation, and issues as important as Westward expansion, the creation of an American empire, even, to some degree, the welfare state were discussed in Protestant terms. Because so many Americans were excluded by language rooted in Protestantism, the U. S. Supreme Court was right to stop defining America as a “Christian nation” and to seek ways of protecting the rights of minority religions.

Yet if society goes to the other extreme and bans from the public square any form of religious language, it violates the beliefs of all those who insist that religion is more than a matter of personal conviction, that faith is essential to how we Americans define ourselves collectively. In so doing, it may extend rights to nonbelievers or to those who believe in doctrines not widely accepted, but it does so at the cost of imposing a view of what America is about that others, in this case the majority of believers, do not share.

One way around this dilemma is to find language that invokes religion rather than religions. Such a language would seek broadly defined terms that bring as many individuals as possible under their scope rather than sectarian language meant to divide one faith from another. “Under God” serves those purposes admirably. It clearly includes Muslims and not just Christians and Jews. True, nonmonotheistic religions believe in Gods rather than God, but, contrary to the appellate court’s interpretation, they are not excluded from the Pledge’s formulation, since those who believe in more than one God still believe in at least one. (They could, moreover, add their own personal “s” to the pledge without anyone noticing - or caring.) The only people excluded by the term are atheists. But since atheists define themselves against the religious beliefs of others, they should work to see the Pledge preserved, for without it, their very reason for taking public stands on these issues would be taken away from them.

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By rejecting a compromise that offends almost no one, had been in existence for half a century and could not be claimed as the exclusive language of any one faith, the circuit court has opened itself up to ridicule. And that is one of the most unfortunate byproducts of its decision. Demagogues like Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell have discredited themselves with their bigoted comments on Islam and their extremist political views. The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals now insures that they will gain much of the credibility they have quite rightfully lost, since one of their more seemingly ridiculous ideas — that there exist people in positions of authority who hate religion — has just been proven correct.

In addition to its political stupidity, the court’s opinion fails to understand what freedom really means. We need separation of church and state because, throughout history, religions have had a tendency to rely on government to coerce others. But nothing about the pledge is coercive. Students can opt out of saying it. It is not said in a religious building or context. Its purely symbolic role is understood by everyone, including the parent who challenged it. The Pledge of Allegiance is not the Spanish Inquisition. In taking this case and ruling as it did, the appellate court has dishonored those who fought real battles, with real lives at stake, on behalf of conscience. Objecting to the Pledge of Allegiance is not an affirmation of liberty; it is a narcissistic act by selfish people who want their own view of how these things should work taken as definitive. And, to make matters worse, they are not determined enough to fight for their views in legislatures and in the court of public opinion; they rely instead on the most liberal judges in the country to get their way.

Since the 9th Circuit Court has been overruled more often than any other court in the United States, one does not expect that this ruling will stand too long. Yet before it is overruled, it is likely to cause considerable damage. In its own way, the United States has been moving toward solutions to problems that in other societies cause religious wars. We are the most religion-tolerant society in the West, incorporating non-Christians in ways Europe cannot seem to grasp. We tame our religious extremists because we are so reluctant to see politics and religion blended. Americans, to be sure, are not active participants in the life of their country, but our tendency to bowl alone looks good when others kill together. The secret to our success is that we have lacked both a clerical tradition insistent on imposing an official religion on society and an anti-clerical tradition that looks with disdain at anyone who professes religious belief.

The appellate court, having now adopted an anti-clerical position, can only expect a clerical reaction. Its official sponsorship of atheism is as repugnant to our tradition of tolerance as official sponsorship of religion. If Americans are not allowed collectively to express their thanks to a generic and nonsectarian God, they will be more likely to engage in battles between different conceptions of specific ones. We are a moderate people who subscribe to moderate faiths. That is something the extremists on the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals fail to understand.

Alan Wolfe is professor of political science and director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life at Boston College. The author and editor of more than twenty books, he is a frequent contributor to the New York Times, Harper’s, and the Atlantic. He lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

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