It is difficult to pinpoint the precise point at which a young country begins
to show its age. But I suspect that it falls somewhere around the day when the
nation gets more agitated about the wording of the Pledge of Allegiance than about
the unrealized promise of "liberty and justice for all."
The debate over the Pledge of Allegiance, which Madison experienced last fall
and which swelled nationally again following last week's federal appeals court
ruling on the constitutionality of the "one nation under God" line, was disturbing
because the whole country seemed to be more cranky than genuinely concerned.
The ruling by a three-judge panel of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals
would not have seemed all that dramatic 40 years ago. In the early 1960s, after
the U.S. Supreme Court barred the organized recitation of prayers in public schools,
it would have come as no surprise if the court had added: "By the way, since we're
talking about the separation of church and state, let's lose that 'under God'
bit in the Pledge."
So why did such a fierce controversy spin up in 2002? Why did both houses of
Congress - chambers that have yet to address issues such as health care, housing,
the widening gap between rich and poor, or the fact that our whole corporate economy
may be based on lies - rush to pass resolutions condemning the judges of the 9th
Circuit? Why did a president denounce the jurists? Why did talk radio gab itself
hoarse spinning the fantasy that America's founders - who somehow got the country
started without reciting the Pledge - would today be aghast at any questioning
of its absolute necessity?
There are those who will suggest it has something to do with Sept. 11, and
perhaps there is some truth to this. A people who regularly are told that they
should be experiencing a properly color-coded level of fear is probably prone
to overreaction. Indeed, the last time the country got scared enough to start
taking away basic civil liberties, during Joe McCarthy's "red scare," is when
the "under God" line was added to the previously secular Pledge.
But I fear that fear is not enough of an explanation. Listening to the fevered
arguments of the Pledge's defenders, I was struck by how their desperation mirrored
that of some of my elderly friends and relatives who in their last years became
obsessed with order. As it got harder to remember or maneuver, they liked everything
And so it is with the crotchety response to the tinkering by well-meaning judges
with a Pledge that most folks have trouble remembering. Members of Congress who
never show up for morning recitations of the Pledge in the Capitol were determined
that students should be made to do so in school.
Encouraging the politicians were newspaper editorials that grumbled about how
the "under God" line probably violated rules of church-state separation but argued
that it was best to pretend that the words were appropriate when included in rote
Watching the sad images of a country looking very old indeed, I was drawn to
the poet of a young America, Walt Whitman, who wrote in the preface to the first
edition of "Leaves of Grass":
"There will soon be no more priests. Their work is done... . A superior breed
shall take their place. ... A new order shall arise and they shall be the priests
of man, and every man shall be his own priest. ... They shall not deign to defend
immortality of God or the perfection of things or liberty or the exquisite beauty
and reality of the soul. They shall arise in America and be responded to from
the remainder of the earth."
Such was the confident voice of a young America. Let us hope, on this our nation's
226th birthday, that that young voice might be heard anew. Let us hope that America
has not grown quite so old as the complainers, the grumblers and the politicians
would have us believe. Let us reject their fear and fantasy, and cling to our
youth a good bit longer.
John Nichols is associate editor for The Capital Times.
Copyright 2002 The Capital Times