Published on Friday, June 28, 2002 in the Boston Globe
Rethinking the Pledge
by Derrick Z. Jackson
OH, MY ... God! Since no politician can afford to be seen as godless, no matter how completely they lean on the everlasting arms of lobbyists, they rushed to fax machines to be the first to cast stones at the ruling Wednesday by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. A three-judge panel held that the phrase ''one nation under God'' makes the Pledge of Allegiance unconstitutional.
''Ridiculous!'' said President Bush, according to spokesman Ari Fleischer.
''Nuts!'' said Senate majority leader Tom Daschle, a Democrat.
''Senseless!'' said Democratic Senator Joseph Lieberman.
''Stupid!'' said Senate Republican leader Trent Lott.
''Our Founding Fathers must be spinning in their graves!'' said Republican Senator Christopher Bond of Missouri.
''Junk justice!'' said New York's Governor George Pataki.
If one little atheist family is capable of creating such panic, the next thing you know, these politicians will send gravediggers to Appleton, Wis., to exhume Senator Joseph McCarthy. During McCarthy's Red Scare of the 1950s, 60 percent of Americans, in research by Harvard sociologist Samuel Stouffer, believed that atheists should not be allowed to give a public speech. That percentage was similar to the percentage who believed that a communist should not speak.
Contrary to Bond's romantic rhetoric about the Founding Fathers, ''under God'' was added to the Pledge by Congress only in 1954. It was the brainchild of the Knights of Columbus, which was doing its part to smoke out ''godless communists.'' In the 1950s, even God had leaned on the everlasting arms of lobbyists.
Nearly five decades later, atheist Michael Newdow of Sacramento sued his school district and the federal government after his second-grade daughter was forced to say the pledge. The suit was originally thrown out by a federal judge. Newdow appealed, saying ''nobody should be made to feel like an outsider.'' On Wednesday, Newdow won in the 9th Circuit, with Judge Alfred Goodwin writing for a three-judge panel that ''one nation under God'' was just as objectionable as saying one nation under Jesus, Vishnu, Zeus, or even under ''no god.''
Newdow's victory was short-lived. Yesterday, after all the expressions of outrage, Goodwin stayed the panel's ruling indefinitely.
No wonder. Hours after the ruling the Senate had passed a resolution, 99-0, to defend ''under God.'' Lott attacked the judges, saying that anyone ''who would make this kind of decision is bad for America.'' Senators screamed that it might mean we cannot mention God in patriotic songs, mint God onto money, or swear on the Bible in courts or political offices.
House Republican whip Tom DeLay said: ''It is sad that at a time when our country is coming together, this court is driving a wedge between us with their absurd ruling.''
''One nation under God'' has its own absurdities, being inserted into the pledge at a time that black people were lynched and girls and women were kept home. ''One nation under God'' came three and a half decades before the Americans With Disabilities Act and four decades before a presidential candidate would openly go to a gay and lesbian fund-raiser.
After the terrorist attacks, the singing of ''God Bless America'' fell off-key as the weeks passed. On a planet full of deadly conflicts, AIDS, and vast poverty, asking God to bless only America sounds a bit self-centered. Asking God to bless only America when we are asking the globe for help us in the fight against terrorism is arrogant. Michael Jackson once sang, ''We Are the World,'' but American politicians do not say ''God Bless the World.''
Instead of being seen as a wedge of division, the 9th Circuit ruling gave Americans an opportunity to rethink the pledge. No matter the bad that has been done, either behind the flag or in the name of God, the pledge in the abstract is a declaration of optimism. When we say ''liberty and justice for all,'' many of us know quite well that generations of power brokers have spent the vast majority of the nation's two and a quarter centuries denying it to millions of its citizens. That does not stop us from wishing for it.
The clear and universal optimism implied in the wish should not be clouded by religious rituals. In a nation that so easily decries Muslim ''radicals'' or ''fanatics,'' what else could you call the congressional spewing of ''stupid!'' ''senseless!'' ''absurd!'' and ''nuts!'' but a fanaticism all its own? Not one senator had a kind thing to say about Newdow's constitutional rights. The individual was trampled in the lawmakers' dash to occupy the front pew of pontification.
Instead of the panicked echoes of McCarthy that would keep ''under God,'' we might do better with phrases that everyone can draw upon that speak to our organic history. My wife came up with, ''one nation, from many.'' I offer, ''one nation, of glorious diversity,'' ''one nation, born of inequality,'' and ''one nation, willing to struggle.'' Many of you surely have better ones. Newdow's courage reminds us that the Pledge of Allegiance itself is organic. In 1954, the issue was less about truly declaring a nation under God than shouting, ''One nation ... oh my God, the Commies are coming!''
© Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company