The mouths of babes

Thursday, October 23rd, 2003

“One nation, under God …”

Oh man, the clang of irrelevance is back, as the Supreme Court agrees to investigate the unceremonious heave-ho Gen. Jerry Boykin’s favorite deity got from West Coast classrooms last year.

You want to say, don’t encourage this national penchant for pointless distraction — our attention span for matters of real importance is too brief — but to whom would you say it? The president? He’s the one who pushed the Supremes to take on this time-waster, and the general who was recently named deputy undersecretary of defense for intelligence has given us an insight why.

“Why is this man in the White House?” Gen. Boykin once asked a gathering of evangelical Christians. “The majority of Americans did not vote for him. He’s in the White House because God put him there for a time such as this.”

If Boykin is right, the majority of Americans have one response: Butt out, God. This is why we have separation of church and state.

America’s kids have been paying a daily quarter-second of rote obeisance to the national God ever since George W. Bush was a boy. The president and a good chunk of his constituency have a vested interest in keeping it that way, apparently.

This is a small matter: two words. In all honesty, I don’t care whether they stay or go, because, contrary to what the newspapers say, the controversy has nothing to do with schoolchildren, just how we move their mouths. Rote allegiance, either to God or Flag, is not allegiance; it’s not anything at all. This is much ado about zip.

But I do care that we think these words matter, and that our progeny ought to utter them once a day, like spiritual medicine. I care that this is what religion amounts to in this country — two words! Two words that get emptier with each false or rote repetition.

The issue has the eerie feel of what Alfred Hitchcock fondly referred to as a “McGuffin”: something the entire story is built around and yet has no real relevance.

The more we reduce our moral lodestar to empty phraseology, the more hysterical and irrational our behavior seems to get. We don’t really know, or notice, what we worship these days, but the empty concept of God has little to do with it. Mostly we worship power and winning.

For instance, up here in my neck of the woods — Chicago — the Cubs fell short for the 95th consecutive year and fans are in despair. Their loss, gauging by the size of the headlines, was the equivalent of 9/11, Pearl Harbor and JFK’s assassination.

But here’s what I don’t understand: Why did the media publish identifying details about the young man who accidentally deflected the foul fly in game six? Not just his name and photo, but his suburb of residence and, good Lord, place of work.

Why not just issue a fatwa? The poor guy became prey not merely to the spittle but also the death threats of anonymous, screw-loose fan-avengers, an utterly predictable consequence in a country that takes its games far too seriously.

This happened, coincidentally, on the same day the Supreme Court decided to give new life to the God-Pledge tussle, which is just another game, stirring up a froth of empty passion.

Meanwhile, one superpower under God has run afoul of Human Rights Watch, which, in a comprehensive report on Occupied Iraq that has just been released, found “a pattern by U.S. forces of overaggressive tactics, indiscriminate shooting in residential areas and a quick reliance on lethal force.”

We’re not just slaughtering civilians but doing so with clean consciences. That’s what this infuriating and foolish debate comes down to: maintaining a children’s cacophony of “under Gods” so we can continue to ignore the reality of what we’re up to on the other side of the world.

As long as the mouths of babes assure us we have God’s all-purpose blessing as a nation, we have no urgent need to monitor policy at the level of shells and bullets and collateral damage.