Symbol and Substance: The Pledge of Allegiance

by | Jul 13, 2002

With all the rage over Wednesday’s 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruling that reciting the Pledge of Allegiance in the public schools violates the religious establishment clause of the 1st Amendment, it’s pretty clear a lot of people are upset that they no longer have the right to force their deity on others. The context […]

With all the rage over Wednesday’s 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruling that reciting the Pledge of Allegiance in the public schools violates the religious establishment clause of the 1st Amendment, it’s pretty clear a lot of people are upset that they no longer have the right to force their deity on others.

The context of the court’s decision is as follows: the plaintiff, Michael Newdow, is an atheist who sends his daughter to a California public school. California state law mandates that public schools begin each school day with “appropriate patriotic exercises” and that the giving of the Pledge of Allegiance satisfies this requirement. Every day while in class, Newdow’s daughter was compelled to listen to her teacher recite a pledge that states that the US exists under the aegis of a God her and her father do not believe in.

According to the court:

“In the context of the Pledge, the statement that the United States is a nation “under God” is an endorsement of religion. It is a profession of a religious belief, namely, a belief in monotheism. The recitation that ours is a nation “under God” is not a mere acknowledgment that many Americans believe in a deity. Nor is it merely descriptive of the undeniable historical significance of religion in the founding of the Republic. Rather, the phrase “one nation under God” in the context of the Pledge is normative. To recite the Pledge is not to describe the United States; instead, it is to swear allegiance to the values for which the flag stands: unity, indivisibility, liberty, justice, and–since 1954–monotheism. The text of the official Pledge, codified in federal law, impermissibly takes a position with respect to the purely religious question of the existence and identity of God. A profession that we are a nation “under God” is identical, for Establishment Clause purposes, to a profession that we are a nation “under Jesus,” a nation “under Vishnu,” a nation “under Zeus,” or a nation “under no god,” because none of these professions can be neutral with respect to religion.”

Although students cannot be forced to participate in recitation of the Pledge, the government is nevertheless conveying a message of state endorsement of religious belief when it requires public school teachers to recite and lead in the recitation of the Pledge. The court was 100% correct in its decision to outlaw the practice.

Yet according to the AP, President Bush found the court’s ruling “ridiculous,” Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, called it “just nuts” and Sen. Christopher Bond said it was “political correctness run amok,” just to name a few of the comments against it. The same day as the decision House Republicans stood outside the capitol to recite the Pledge, and the Senate passed a resolution 99-0 condemning the court’s ruling.

Perhaps the real reason behind the outcry against the court’s decision is the Judeo-Christian majority’s view that they don’t have to persuade anyone about their beliefs, even those of us who reject those beliefs outright. Since they accept their worldview as an article of faith that can be neither debated nor denied, why then shouldn’t the rest of us peasants be compelled to do the same, whether we want to or not?

These modern-day zealots would do well to learn from the lessons of history. For all the ages prior to the establishment of the American republic, when religion was a political question to be decided by kings and inquisitors, the result was little more than bloodshed and misery. It was precisely through the genius of the founders, who recognized that no government had the the right to coerce the private, personal beliefs of its citizens, that the era of religious torture and conflict was put to an end.

In America, we recognize (or at least we ought to recognize) that each individual is wholly sovereign in matters of faith and philosophy for the simple reason that no one can legitimately think for another. We must respect the rights of others to their thoughts if we expect a regime that respects our right to thoughts of our own. Our intellectual currency is facts and our method of communicating is persuasion, not force. Inserting “under God” into the Pledge forgets these fundamental truths about the nature of our union.

The Pledge of Allegiance is a symbol and not the substance of America. The real substance of America is freedom: the freedom to think and live by our own judgment and standards. All those who weep for the Pledge would do well to remember that.

Nicholas Provenzo is founder and Chairman of the Center for the Advancement of Capitalism.

The views expressed above represent those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors and publishers of Capitalism Magazine. Capitalism Magazine sometimes publishes articles we disagree with because we think the article provides information, or a contrasting point of view, that may be of value to our readers.

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