The pledge of allegiance and political divides

I love history because when one looks into the historical roots of current events, one uncovers all kinds of interesting bits of information. This is true about the pledge issue. In addition to the (by now) well-known fact that the phrase “under God” was not part of the original pledge at all and was only added in 1954 as part of the Cold War fight against “godless Communism,” there is an interesting history to the pledge that suggest that the people on either sides of the lines being drawn on this issue are not as predictable as one might expect. For example, it is now assumed that the people who oppose the inclusion of the phrase “under God” are “on the left” or “liberal” and that those who want it included are “on the right” or are “conservative,” whatever those labels might mean. But a little investigation shows that things are not so simple.

Gene Healy, Senior Editor of the libertarian Cato Institute pointed out after the 2002 ruling that the pledge exemplifies the kind of devotion to the state that conservatives should be wary of and he is puzzled by why they have rushed to defend it.

“It’s probably too much to ask politicians to reflect a little before they lunge for a political hot-button issue. But any conservatives so inclined should think about what they’re defending. What’s so conservative about the Pledge?

Very little, as it turns out. From its inception, in 1892, the Pledge has been a slavish ritual of devotion to the state, wholly inappropriate for a free people. It was written by Francis Bellamy, a Christian Socialist pushed out of his post as a Baptist minister for delivering pulpit-pounding sermons on such topics as “Jesus the Socialist.”

Though no one can be legally compelled to salute the flag, encouraging the ritual smacks of promoting a quasi-religious genuflection to the state. That’s not surprising, given that the Pledge was designed by an avowed socialist to encourage greater regimentation of society.

Regardless of the legal merits of Newdow’s case – which rests on a rather ambitious interpretation of the First Amendment’s Establishment clause – it’s ironic to see conservatives rally to such a questionable custom. Why do so many conservatives who, by and large, exalt the individual and the family above the state, endorse this ceremony of subordination to the government? Why do Christian conservatives say it’s important for schoolchildren to bow before a symbol of secular power? Indeed, why should conservatives support the Pledge at all, with or without “under God”?

The idea that the pledge is somehow neutral with respect to religion is addressed by one of the judges in the 2002 9th circuit verdict. From the website The Moderate Voice we find that Judge Stephen Reinhardt wrote:

In the context of the Pledge, the statement that the United States is a nation “under God” is a profession of a religious belief, namely, a belief in monotheism. The recitation that ours is a nation “under God” is not a mere acknowledgment that many Americans believe in a deity. Nor is it merely descriptive of the undeniable historical significance of religion in the founding of the Republic. Rather, the phrase “one nation under God” in the context of the Pledge is normative. To recite the Pledge is not to describe the United States; instead, it is to swear allegiance to the values for which the flag stands: unity, indivisibility, liberty, justice, and – since 1954 – monotheism. A profession that we are a nation “under God” is identical, for Establishment Clause purposes, to a profession that we are a nation “under Jesus,” a nation “under Vishnu,” a nation “under Zeus,” or a nation “under no god,” because none of these professions can be neutral with respect to religion. The school district’s practice of teacher-led recitation of the Pledge aims to inculcate in students a respect for the ideals set forth in the Pledge, including the religious values it incorporates.

The verdicts on issues like the pledge, the public display of the ten commandments, the burning of the flag, and school prayer will not affect the daily life of anybody in any noticeable way. But where people stand on this issue does say a lot about how they view their individual rights and liberties in relation to the rights of the state, and about their views of the relationship of the state with religion.

POST SCRIPT: The case for immediate withdrawal from Iraq

Tomorrow, Saturday, September 24 is the big antiwar march and rally in Washington DC. Tom Englehardt and Michael Schwartz make the case for immediate withdrawal of US forces from Iraq.

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