• Pledging Allegiance

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    The
    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.

    The
    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.

    The
    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,
    Looking
    Backward
    (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.

    The
    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.

    Be
    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.

    If
    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:

    Again
    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.]

    And
    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.

    Whatever
    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.

    Meanwhile,
    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.

    July
    4, 2002

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

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