Wednesday, August 31, 2005

A Double Standard

God, Country, Constitution, and
the Pledge of Allegiance

Why is is that when an atheist files a law suit against the words "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance, it is front page news for months, but when a devout Christian files a law suit against the words "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance, the media ignores it?

I just finished reading the decision in a 4th circuit federal appeals court case, Myers v. Loudon County Public Schools. Here is a description of the plaintiff and his complaint, from the text of the court's ruling:

Myers belongs to the Anabaptist Mennonite faith, which condemns the mixture of church and state. Anabaptist Mennonites are a Christian sect that "left Central Europe in late 1600 because of religious persecution for belief in the separation of church and state." According to the Mennonite Confession of Faith, "the primary allegiance of all Christians is to Christ’s kingdom, not the state or society. Because their citizenship is in heaven, Christians are called to resist the idolatrous temptation to give to the state the devotion that is owed to God."

Now THAT is the original meaning and intent of the separation of church and state. What is wrong with the words, "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance is not that it might offend an atheist, what is wrong is that it might offend God. When an attempt was made to insert the words "Jesus Christ" into the preamble of Virginia's Bill for Religious Liberty, James Madison responded "The better proof of reverence for that holy name would be not to profane it by making it a topic of legislative discussion." For that very reason, there is no reference to God in the United States Constitution. The omission was not an oversight. It was a change from the Articles of Confederation. It was a deliberate choice by the Framers. As Madison had already set forth in the Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments, to "employ Religion as an engine of Civil policy" is "an unhallowed perversion of the means of salvation."

Madison acknowledged while serving as President of the United States that "the source to which I look . . . is in . . . my fellow-citizens, and in the counsels of those representing them in the other departments associated in the care of the national interests. In these my confidence will under every difficulty be best placed, next to that which we have all been encouraged to feel in the guardianship and guidance of that Almighty Being whose power regulates the destiny of nations, whose blessings have been so conspicuously dispensed to this rising Republic, and to whom we are bound to address our devout gratitude for the past, as well as our fervent supplications." Madison saw no contradiction between his own supplications to God, and his care to preserve that holy name from contamination in mere civil laws.

With that as the historical foundation of our nation... how did we ever get a pledge of allegiance like the one familiar to us today? Originally, it was a cute poem in a children's magazine. It was inspired by the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus stumbling into America on his way to India. It was written generically for every nation in North and South America. That was in 1892. Even our country's first centennial did not inspire such a verse.

It originally read "I pledge allegiance to my Flag and the Republic for which it stands: one Nation indivisible, with Liberty and Justice for all." In the 1920s, there were National Flag Conferences, which took it upon themselves to edit the original author's work, replacing "my flag" with "the flag of the United States of America." Then in 1942, congress voted on what the words of the pledge should be. It is now a law, recorded as 4 U. S. C. §4 (section 4, title 4, United States Code).

That was probably a mistake. We don't have a law to tell us the officially approved words for the Battle Hymn of the Republic. The words are those Julia Ward Howe wrote, and that is that. We don't litigate about where she made reference to God, or Christ. But the motive for codifying the pledge is easy to understand. We were in the midst of World War II. It was the last time we were wholeheartedly united as a nation behind any war effort. There was no question that our very survival was at stake. Civilians actually made sacrifices for the war effort. Congress thought that codification and greater use of the pledge would be a good patriotic exercise.

But if Congress could write one set of words into the law, it could write another. In 1954, the words "under God" were added, by a law known as 68 Stat. 249. So now, it is not simply, the words the author chose, it is the words congress dictated, in response to an intensive lobbying campaign. Is this, perhaps, the "unhallowed perversion of the means of salvation" that Madison wrote about?

Myers's lawsuit asked that the recitation of the pledge in public schools be ended as a violation of the First Amendment. The United States Supreme Court ruled long ago that reciting the pledge cannot be mandatory, West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette. In 1942, families in West Virginia filed suit when their children were threatened with expulsion if they did not salute the flag. These families adhered to "a literal version of Exodus, Chapter 20, verses 4 and 5, which says: 'Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; thou shalt not bow down thyself to them nor serve them.' They consider that the flag is an 'image' within this command. For this reason they refuse to salute it."

As the Supreme Court noted at that time "The freedom asserted by these appellees does not bring them into collision with rights asserted by any other individual. ...the refusal of these persons to participate in the ceremony does not interfere with or deny rights of others to do so. Nor is there any question in this case that their behavior is peaceable and orderly. The sole conflict is between authority and rights of the individual."

For over 60 years, the law has protected Mennonite children, or any others, from joining in the pledge of allegiance if they have religious objections. It does not prohibit public schools in general from reciting it as a patriotic exercise. Myers objected not only to having blasphemous words put in his children's mouth, but to the state appropriating the name of God at all.

Myers may be correct spiritually, or he may not. What he seeks may be the right thing for our nation to do, under the Constitution, or it may not. There are many, whose faith is not offended, who would assert their own right to recite the pledge if they choose to. Although individuals have an undoubted right to recite the pledge with, or without, the words "under God," perhaps the government should not appropriate the name of God in a statute, or promote daily use. But one question is still raised by the deafening silence that greeted his litigation:

Why is denial of God, under cover of the First Amendment, getting all the attention, while reliance on the First Amendment to promote reverence for God, is quietly suppressed? Where are the media now? Where are the concerned Christian lawyers rushing to aid Myers in making his case? What has become of our nation?

No comments: