Things To Act
Saturday, June 19, 2004
Pledge Nonreaction Reaction Reaction
WednesdayÂ’s Wall Street Journal carried an editorial (by Samuel Huntington) arguing that "Atheists are outsiders in America." Despite not being an atheist, I disagree.

The logical fallacies start fairly quickly, in the third paragraph.
Unbelievers do not have to recite the pledge, or engage in any religiously tainted practice of which they disapprove. They also, however, do not have the right to impose their atheism on all those Americans whose beliefs now and historically have defined America as a religious nation.
"Imposing" atheism on someone would consist of forcing him to deny belief in God, or some such. Declining to give official government sponsorship to the sentiment that God exists is not the same thing. Further, the notion that one's 'beliefs' alone are sufficient to define America as a 'religious nation' is troubling. The phrase 'religious nation' can mean many different things, ranging from a theocracy to a secular democracy in which a majority of the citizens are religious (if in different traditions). Whose preferred definition of the term should govern? Are those who, like the Latter-day Saints, "do not believe it just to mingle religious influence with civil government," also marginalized? The proper way to determine these sorts of questions is to play by the predetermined rules--in this case, the Constitution. Under the First Amendment, government can neither promote nor discourage either belief or unbelief.

The editorial goes on to make statistical arguments, basically that about 85% of the population consider themselves Christians. Here my LDS-influenced skepticism kicks into overdrive. Whose definition of Christian prevails in these statistical games? Given the vast differences between the denominations, and especially given the vast numbers of people who profess belief but do little to act on it, I don't see the relevance of this argument. Furthermore, this argument has an ugly undertone, perhaps best shown a few paragraphs later when the author refers in passing to an earlier America's rather grudging acceptance of Catholicism. I much prefer a country in which a minority is truly devout but a majority is tolerant of others' faith to a country of devout Protestants determined to make life difficult for those who believe otherwise.

The author also refers to arguments by some of the Founders that religion and morality are necessary to maintain the success of the nation. Using statements like these to defend a particular interpretation of the Constitution is troubling, though, as it allows one to cherry-pick which Founders one wants to quote. It seems wiser to start from any statements that the Founders all agreed on (such as the Constitution). But this argument is irrelevant, anyway. If we take the proposition that morality is essential for the success of democracy, it still tells us nothing about the role of the state in promoting morality. I can just as easily argue that since government-enforced morality is immoral, the churches need to do a better job promoting morality so democracy can succeed.

The rest of the editorial goes on with more arguments from statistics and some nonsensical Supreme Court references (as if we still treat the Court's nineteenth-century opinions in Dred Scott or Reynolds as founts of wisdom). The core of the argument--that the majority of Americans consider themselves Christians--is still irrelevant, though. All Americans live under the Constitution. Its provisions govern.

Friday's WSJ followed up with this editorial (by Daniel Henniger). It too is unimpressive.
The long historical truth is that God, whether He exists or not, is good for summoning national pride, communal bonds and the martial spirit--the qualities most necessary to ensuring the survival of the United States at its current level of pre-eminence.
This argument is horribly offensive, assuming that temporary utility should triumph over truth (rather than the reverse). My sense is that the truly religious should be more offended by this argument than by anything having to do with the SC's Newdow decision.

When in reciting the Pledge of Allegiance schoolchildren stand and say together that their one, indivisible, just and liberty-loving nation exists under God, they are admitting an organizing force in life other than their cute, little selves.
Replacing 'under God' with 'under the Constitution' would give the same result, of course (and have the advantage of being objectively true and Constitutional, besides).

Through the ages this at times has led to quite awful undertakings in the name of national pride, God or religion. But that's not us and likely never will be. The Founders designed our system to prevent factions from abusing state power; it is what they sought to prevent.
This argument is also problematic. American nationalism has actually led to quite a few bad results in the past, and unquestionable abuses of state power. America's strength is her ability to learn from her mistakes as well as her successes, not her ability to whip a blind fervor of religious zeal.

Henniger goes on to argue that "Wholly secularizing America's public life, as the Pledge banners wish, is dangerous." However, he fails to demonstrate this. He argues that patriotism is necessary for national survival, but fails to explain why the only way the state can teach patriotism involves violating the Constitution.

This innocuous little Pledge and its two words, "under God," has become for school children the last link joining national purpose to God--a union that is this country's best, proven hope for ensuring national strength.
Because no religions teach that American might be guided by God? Sheesh, if the religious people don't care enough about the idea to teach it themselves, why does anyone care if the government does?

I'm forced to wonder if the real motives don't have more to do with the children of the irreligious than the religious. Which puts a rather sinister spin on the motives of those who want to use the machinery of government to indoctrinate the others' children with religious views.

Or perhaps that's an overly cynical evaluation. Nevertheless, the Pledge seems to me to have two functions--to give adults an opportunity to browbeat children with patriotic messages, and to give politicians an opportunity to demonstrate how patriotic they are for their constituents. While the second function is largely harmless, in a sad sort of way, the first seems more dangerous, if only because teaching the actual values that America stands for is more important than extracting oaths from those too young to meaningfully keep (or understand) them.

And it's worth noting that the actual semantic content of the Pledge, beyond the loyalty oath aspect, consists of the following ideas:
*The nation is 'indivisible'
*The nation is 'under God'
*The nation has 'liberty and justice for all'

The first idea is leftover from the Reconstruction era (and an ugly reminder of the Pledge's original purpose). The second is unConstitutional. And the third is a nice aspiration, but is close to meaningless without a lot more discussion (rigorously defining the terms, for starters, could cause no end of disagreement). So I suppose I'd just as soon see the nation stop caring about the Pledge entirely.

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