Pledging Allegiance

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American polity experienced a mass paroxysm last week when the 9th
Circuit Court of Appeals held that the assertion, in the Pledge
of Allegiance, that our nation is "under God" violates
the First Amendment's prohibition against the establishment of religion.
Vehement criticism from politicians, talk radio and the public at
large reached such a fever pitch that the author of the court's
opinion took the rare step of staying his own order pending the
outcome of the appeal.

court's apparent desire to seek a head on collision with American
patriotic fervor during the War on Terror is remarkable. The Supreme
Court ruled in 1943 (West Virginia State Board of Education v.
Barnette, 319 US 624) that the First Amendment prohibited any
state from compelling a child to recite the Pledge or punishing
him for failing to do so. The 9th Circuit's case thus
turned completely on the social pressure or opprobrium those who
refuse to recite the Pledge experience if they refuse to do so.
The court could simply have pointed out the absence of any legal
compulsion or penalty, politely indicated that the courts are not
in the business of counteracting peer pressure in the nation's schools
but that is what parents are for, suggested that part of having
convictions is actually having the courage of them, and dismissed
the case. It seems, however, that the court was working hard to
make a Statement. At that it succeeded beyond its wildest expectations.

original Pledge was penned in 1892 by Francis Bellamy (1855–1931),
a Baptist minister and Christian socialist. According to John Baer,
who has authored a book on the Pledge and its history, in writing
the Pledge, Bellamy sought to express the ideas of his first cousin,
Edward Bellamy, author of the American socialist utopian novels,
(1888) and Equality
(1897), and admittedly, the Pledge does declare allegiance to
an ideal, a republic for which the flag stands, which may
or may not happen to exist at any given moment.

original Pledge did not contain the words, "under God."
According to Baer, Congress added them in 1954 after a lobbying
campaign by the Knights of Columbus, who thought it important to
distinguish ourselves from atheistic communists. In approving the
legislation, President Eisenhower stated, “In this way we are reaffirming
the transcendence of religious faith in America’s heritage and future;
in this way we shall constantly strengthen those spiritual weapons
which forever will be our country’s most powerful resource in peace
and war.” Apparently, from the government's perspective, it is necessary
to have a plenitude of powerful spiritual resources at the government's
disposal for killing and otherwise combating the nation's enemies.

that as it may, the elision of the words, "under God,"
by the 9th Circuit should revive a religious issue that
the use of those words somewhat hides. While it does not generally
occur to anyone, reciting the Pledge is a violation of God's commandment
to have no other gods before Him. A moment's thought should be sufficient
to disclose that this injunction prohibits swearing any oath of
fealty to a flag, republic, nation, government or, yes, even a constitution.
Little thought seems to be given to this matter, it seems, because
it is taken for granted that of course there is only one God, so
who could have any other gods before Him? It is forgotten that it
is a commandment precisely because man's natural condition is, and
tendency is towards, paganism, and that it is a perpetual spiritual
struggle to actually only have one god who really is God. If you
doubt it, try this test: observe your behavior, and then ask yourself
what it reveals about who — or what — your real god is.

the import of the commandment is not clear enough, however, we also
have Christ's words from the Sermon on the Mount advising us not
to swear any oaths:

you have heard that it was said to the men of old, u2018You shall
not swear falsely, but shall perform to the Lord what you have
sworn.' But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven,
for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his
footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great
King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one
hair white or black. Let what you say be simply u2018Yes' or u2018No;'
anything more than this comes from evil. [Matthew 5:33-37.]

if that is not sufficient, we also have Christ's observation
that "No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate
the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and
despise the other." [Matthew 6: 24] As Kierkegaard has pointed
out (in Judge
For Yourselves!
), Christ does not say, no one should
serve two masters, but no one can serve two masters, i.e.,
that it is impossible for a man to serve two masters. Thus,
anyone who thinks he can serve two masters deceives himself, for
in whatever he does, in reality he is only serving one master.

the merit, in 1954, of assisting in the fight against godless Communism,
the addition of the words, "under God," arguably
removes this doctrinal objection to pledging fealty to a symbol
of the nation with a claim that the nation is, of course, "under,"
that is, subordinate to, God. Of course, saying it doesn't make
it so, but it is always pleasant to flatter ourselves, and at least
we differ from godless Communists in our pretensions and ideals
(or do I repeat myself?). In short, the words do not really address
the religious issue, but only provide a colorable exemption from
religious injunctions with a self-serving statement that appeases
or flatters the religious conscience.

The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals decision ought, therefore,
revive a religious predicament that in truth has never disappeared.
A practicing member of Jewish or Christian faiths who endeavors
to abide by God's commandment that He alone is God and we are not
to have any other gods before Him should consider revisiting the
issue, because the escape clause that gives a nod to God in the
process of swearing undying fealty to an idol of man is, supposedly,
required to be dropped.

legally speaking, the upshot of the Circuit Court's opinion is this:
it is unconstitutional to pledge allegiance to a nation that seeks
and holds itself to be "under God." Since, as elided,
the Pledge is unconditional, it is constitutional for one
to declare allegiance to a nation supreme unto itself. Perhaps this
seems like rather straightforward modern statist doctrine to the
9th Circuit majority. Unfortunately, not only did the
court forget President Eisenhower's observation that the government
needs subjects who have powerful spiritual resources that it can
exploit in order to triumph over the nation's many enemies, but
also forgot that we subjects find it difficult to take this doctrine
unadorned: we need our pretensions.

4, 2002

Snyder [send
him mail
is an attorney and the author of
of Cowards — Essays on the Ethics of Gun Control

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