The national blessing

Thursday, April 1st, 2004

One nation under Allah?

No? How about Yahweh? Brahma? There are plenty more names we could invoke, all perfectly adequate to bestow a national blessing. If all we need is a Supreme Being to punch up the Pledge, why does it have to be G-O-D?

Yet, just guessing wildly, I’d say any other referent to the ultimate would be anathema to the folks who held hands on the steps of the Supreme Court last week and sang “God Bless America.” Indeed, in lieu of a counter-deity, they’d surely prefer nothing, that is, the pre-1954, “atheist” alternative: a smooth glide from nation to indivisible, then on to liberty, justice and a
cacophony of scuffling feet and crashing desktops.

For all the noise and consternation this controversy has evoked, it’s more adrenal than spiritual. It’s about words and people’s attachment to them, not values. What a pity. We could do with a serious national dialogue on the terrible leaching of basic values from public life. This ain’t it.

The nature of the U.S. government’s challenge to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruling, which declared “under God” unconstitutional, doesn’t exactly help, and in fact negates the passion of the words’ ardent supporters.

I mean, how many ways can you have it? If the phrase is merely surplus verbiage reflecting America’s “political heritage” and not in any way religious, why are they baiting atheists on Clear Channel and carrying banners through the streets of Towanda?

As legal columnist Marci Hamilton asks in an excellent essay on the subject on, “Would the Department of Justice argue as well that the phrase ‘and liberty for all’ is just surplus, drained of any possible meaning by its endless repetition? Surely not.”

Well, there’s the problem, right? What if it is?

And now we get to a core matter on this controversy. Which is worse, removing the word “God” from the Pledge precisely because it’s so full of meaning (good, bad and ugly) for so many people, or leaving it in and forcing it to have no meaning at all? That, after all, is the only way it’s the least bit constitutionally permissible.

As Justice David Souter put it, pondering the worthiness of the case, the rote recitation of this phrase by the nation’s schoolchildren as part of a civic ritual “is so tepid, so diluted, so far from a compulsory prayer that it should in effect be beneath the constitutional radar.”

He’s absolutely right. The thing is, I don’t blame people for being upset about it – for being upset, that is, about a cynical hardening of public life and public spiritedness, and the growing void where there ought to be a sense of community.

There is something wrong, wildly out of control even. I just don’t think bolting two Judeo-Christian words permanently into the Pledge of Allegiance is going to fix it. The last thing we need is enforced, strident affirmation of what we don’t really believe.

And come on, the Pledge is forced on kids – by sheer peer pressure and, often enough, teacher strong-arming. In my own experience as a parent, I remember when my daughter’s sixth-grade teacher stripped a classmate of the elected position of student council rep because, for religious reasons, he didn’t mouth the Pledge.

As Hamilton points out in her essay, the very essence of liberty and justice for all is tolerance of dissenting beliefs. Those two loaded words the Supreme Court is now deliberating needlessly imperil everything in the Pledge that matters.

Yet, saying that, I must add that I do believe in public “worship.” But it has to manifest itself not in what we force our children to recite but in how we act. Right now, with God’s rote blessing, we’re a frightened,
careening superpower, pursuing our single-minded interests in a fragile world.

Without that blessing to hide behind, maybe we can start living up to the rest of our ideals.