Political Posturing and the Pledge of Allegiance: Under God, over the Top. (Editorial)

Church & State, April 2003 | Go to article overview

Political Posturing and the Pledge of Allegiance: Under God, over the Top. (Editorial)


The U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals' Feb. 28 decision reaffirming that the Pledge of Allegiance is unconstitutional in public schools has brought out the worst in some of America's politicians and Religious Right leaders.

Lapsing into wild-eyed hysteria, William Donohue of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights called for impeaching the judges who backed the ruling and demanded that public school teachers openly disobey it.

House Majority Leader Tom DeLay took a different approach, calling on Congress to withdraw the Pledge from the jurisdiction of the federal courts. Another House member, Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho) offered a third option, opining that the 9th Circuit Court should be broken up, presumably so that President George W. Bush can stack it with right-wing judicial activists who have no use for church-state separation.

U.S. Rep. Ernest Istook (R-Okla.) said the ruling is proof that Congress must pass his constitutional amendment that would not only sanction "under God" in the Pledge, but also bless official school prayer and government displays of the Ten Commandments.

Religious Right groups, meanwhile, are using the Pledge decision to raise money and whip up public hostility toward the separation of church and state.

All of this activity flies in the face of calm analysis. Until 1954, the Pledge of Allegiance was a simple patriotic exercise devoid of religious content. In that year, Congress, in a burst of McCarthyite fervor against "godless communism," slipped the words "under God" into the Pledge. Thus a patriotic exercise became a theological affirmation, as much a confession of faith as an expression of devotion to country.

This year marks the 400th anniversary of the birth of Roger Williams, an early pioneer for religious liberty and church-state separation. Williams would understand why it's wrong for the state to ask anyone to recite religious oaths.

Williams had some personal experience with this issue. In 1635, Massachusetts' government leaders tried to force all men over the age of 16 to swear an oath to the king ending in "So help me, God."

That bothered Williams. He believed the government had no business compelling anyone to believe certain things about religion.

"A magistrate ought not to tender an oath to an unregenerate man," he said. To do so would force the non-believer "to take the name of God in vain."

Williams argued so forcefully about the issue that he stretched the patience of Massachusetts' leaders of church and state. They banished him from the Bay Colony. Williams fled to the wilderness, purchased some land from the natives and founded Rhode Island as a haven for persons of all religious beliefs and none. …

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