Pledge of Allegiance Debate

Newdow & Us
Much more than one case and two words.

By Gilbert T. Sewall

I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the republic for which it stands, one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.

In 2002, in the case of Newdow v. Elk Grove Unified School District, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the phrase “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance violates the First Amendment. Those who object to “under God” say the two words turn the pledge into an unconstitutional religious statement.

Today the Supreme Court hears oral arguments on the matter. The case is almost surely destined to enter the history textbooks, especially if it becomes a hot-button issue in this year’s national elections.

The pledge is the customary way of honoring the nation in public schools. It is mandated by law as part of the school program in many states, including California. Public schools started adopting the pledge in 1892, following a campaign on the part of Francis Bellamy, Baptist minister, member of the National Education Association, and the prominent editor of The Youth’s Companion. It is an artifact of the era’s ardent patriotism as well as part of a conscious turn-of-the-century effort to Americanize immigrant children.

Liberal legend has it that “under God”‘s inclusion is simply a function of mid-century McCarthyism — the two words were added by Congress in 1954. But, as James Piereson has observed, the phrase “under God” — introduced by George Washington and reiterated by Abraham Lincoln in the Gettysburg Address — has been in the nation’s public vocabulary since the Founding.

What does the pledge do? It establishes a common political purpose and collective aspiration. It affirms the principle of “liberty and justice for all” citizens. The pledge celebrates a specific political philosophy: the republic of which the flag is a symbol. “Under God” injects the element of providence — and turns the oath into something of a public prayer.

The pledge is one of the nation’s few civic universals. It states in elegant but clear language — in very few words — some public principles that a large number of Americans, especially children, would have a hard time articulating on their own.

Still, for many secularists, God in the pledge suggests a state-imposed religion, an exclusionary one dictated by Christian conservatives. As they see it, proscription would be a victory over repressive cultural forces.

The litigant, Michael Newdow, and his allies — notably the American Civil Liberties Union — are convinced that yanking divine benefaction from the operative American creed is a progressive step toward restoring the purity of the pledge.

Sacramento-based Newdow is a shrewd lawyer and atheist who likes to use press conferences and talk shows as courtrooms. Newdow himself will argue the case before the Court on behalf of his nine-year-old daughter. A plaintiff in other federal cases, he has challenged the 2000 inaugural prayer and the presence of chaplains in Congress.

Meanwhile, for many traditionalists, expunging God from the creed is sacrilege. They say it is a determined and fateful break with the essence of the nation’s Founding. The Court hearing has been preceded by days of Capitol Hill anti-religion rallies and prayer vigils.

Many people on both sides of the matter, religious and not, consider this Newdow campaign absurd and dangerous. Yet the arguments follow 40 years of secularist litigation designed to excise God from public life. The logic of the appeals court is consistent and compatible with numerous federal rulings. In substance and spirit, the Ninth Circuit follows decades of highly restrictive decisions on religion in the nation’s schools. Bearing that in mind, in some ways, no matter the ruling in this case, the damage is already done. One or another faction is likely to contest the results, and demagogues will have a field day. Ugly and long-lasting civic repercussions may ensue from the Newdow case, of the kind that change the course of history.

Gilbert T. Sewall is the director of the American Textbook Council in New York City.

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