March 24, 2004

Pledge Wipes


I was relieved to hear that Michael Newdow aquitted himself well before the Supreme Court. I have mixed feelings about this case. On the one hand, I still can't see that God in the pledge is an important enough battle to fight. But since the case did make it all the way to the top, I certainly would not want it in the hands of someone who was "a sloppy, overzealous mess," as Dahlia Lithwick reasonably assumed Newdow would be before hearing him. The last thing we atheists need is to be represented by another embarrassing nutjob.

There's also the unavoidable matter of Newdow being right on the law, as William Safire reluctantly admits.

So good for Newdow, however this ends up. I'm not too surprised he pulled it off, however, since I heard him speak last year and found him very impressive. After his talk I told him that while I thought he was right, I worried that by picking on something so simultaneously silly and beloved, he risked diminishing the cause of freedom of religion. Don't you realize, I said, that from now on when we raise alarms about the religious right taking over health care or rewriting textbooks, people are going to dismiss us by saying, they're the same wackos who wanted to take God out of the prayer.

Newdow replied that he saw it the opposite way. The religious right has the traction it does to take such measures in large part because the politicians who serve them are of the unshakable belief that America is and should be a Christian nation, subservient to religious doctrine — and that this misapprehension is reinforced everyday precisely because ubiquitous appeals to God — in the pledge, in the prayer that starts sessions of Congress and the courts, on money even — are never challenged. As long as there is such a thing as ceremonial deism — religion so habitual as to be meaningless — why wouldn't lawmakers think their duty is to serve those who claim to serve God?

I can't say I was entirely persuaded. But I sure wouldn't have wanted to be Ted Olson.

Posted by Daniel Radosh


Am I the only one who thinks it's odd that the proposition to enshrine atheism as a matter of legal doctrine seems more intolerant than the religions from which it proclaims to free us? I mean, if this guy were against state-mandated Christian prayer in public schools, I'd be with him all the way. But he's talking about the Pledge of Allegiance, which is neither a prayer, nor is it mandated. Students may recite it or not, or leave out the words "under God," as their faith and custom dictate. That sounds like freedom of conscience to me, as per the 1st Amendment.

Remember, the belief that there is no God is as much founded on faith as the belief that there is a God. There is no proof, no evidence, for or against the proposition. Why, then, should the faith of atheism be granted special status? Christianty shouldn't. Judaism shouldn't. Islam shouldn't. Wicca shouldn't. Buddhism shouldn't. Why should Atheism get its own special status?

There is nothing in the phrase "under God" that establishes a religion. Oh sure, it takes as a given that there is a God, but it does not prescribe the manners in which God is to be conceived or worshipped. As for atheists, there is no compulsion whatsoever to use that phrase.

Daniel, I think you're right in assuming that this will hurt other causes. The means by which it will do this is to demonstrate the hypocrisy of a group that claims to be tolerant, yet shows it cannot tolerate the faith of others. To me, that makes it as bad as the Christian fundamentalists who would replace the US Constitution with the ten commandments, and send the atheists with the Jews, Moslems, and other "heathens" into a fate I'd hate to imagine.

The points in your third graf were central to the session at the Supreme Court. The transcript is a great read that airs out all the arguments, so look it up if you're interested in Newdow's responses.

As to your main point, I think you'd be absolutely right -- if that's what was going on here. But no one wants to enshrine atheism or give it special status. Newdow's not asking for "under God" to be replaced with "under no God," which, yeah, would be incredibly intollerant. He simply wants to restore the pledge to its original version. Was the pledge somehow promoting atheism for the first 62 years of its existence? No, it simply left religion out, as the Constitution requires.

My response, follow up, etc, are at http://chaplin.nu/archives/000212.html


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