Thursday, March 25, 2010

‘Under God’ Upheld

Steve Weatherbee at the National Catholic Register happily updates an old story.
The United States Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit has issued a surprising judgment upholding the reference to God in the Pledge of Allegiance and reversing an earlier decision.

Congress inserted the reference at the instigation of the Knights of Columbus some 56 years ago. The Catholic fraternal organization was one of the defendants-intervenors in this case.

Also arguing for the God clause was the U.S. Department of Justice and the Rio Linda, Calif., Union School District.

In a 2-1 decision, the court ruled that the public school district did not force a specific religion on several unnamed student plaintiffs by holding the pledge ceremony daily in their classrooms. Therefore, they did not violate the establishment clause in the Constitution’s First Amendment, which forbids the state from establishing a religion.

“The decision is a victory for common sense,” said Supreme Knight Carl Anderson. “It is a welcome reversal of the 9th Circuit’s 2002 decision in a similar case that was ultimately thrown out by the Supreme Court on technical grounds. Today the court got it absolutely right: Recitation of the pledge is a patriotic exercise, not a religious prayer.”


  1. Al,
    The First Amendment does not refer to the establishment of a religion. It refers to the establishment of religion.

  2. Mauman,
    I detect that you are trying to make some subtle point here. So I'll bite. How do you see the significance of the indefinite article?

    In my view, ultimately, politics can't be freed from religion.

  3. Al,

    I thought you were the wordsmith around here. I don't like the following sentence in your post: "In a 2-1 decision, the court ruled that the public school district did not force a specific religion on several unnamed student plaintiffs by holding the pledge ceremony daily in their classrooms." In particular, I don't like the phrase "a specific religion." If the 9th Circuit used that phrase, then I think they were wrong.

    The online Merriam-Webster Dictionary has many definitions for the word "a." Of those, I think the following applies: "3 c: used as a function word before a mass noun to denote a particular type or instance [a bronze made in ancient times]."

    Here's the way I see it: "establishment of a religion" refers to a particular religion as yet unidentified, which is even more general than saying "establishment of a specific religion." But the First Amendment is even more general than that. It refers to "establishment of religion."

    So I'm saying that "a specific religion" has no place in a court ruling on the First Amendment.

  4. I thought the quote from Carl Anderson identifying the pledge as a patriotic exercise rather than a religious prayer was interesting inasmuch as the Knights were instrumental in getting the phrase placed in the pledge. The pledge seems to me a good exercise of civil religion and not just an exercise of "patriotism"

    Here's President Eisenhower's statement of gratitude: “We are particularly thankful to you for your part in the movement to have the words ‘under God’ added to our Pledge of Allegiance. These words will remind Americans that despite our great physical strength we must remain humble. They will help us to keep constantly in our minds and hearts the spiritual and moral principles which alone give dignity to man, and upon which our way of life is founded. For the contribution
    which your organization has made to this cause, we must be genuinely grateful.”

    A naive, common sense reading of the President might lead one to believe that religion plays an important civil role. It relativizes the state "keeps it humble", suggests to the citizenry that their civil life together has some meaning and purpose, reminds people that they aren't a law unto ourselves.

    I suspect this is what George Washington had in mind in his Farewell Address when he said:
    "Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim the tribute of patriotism, who should labor to subvert these great pillars of human happiness, these firmest props of the duties of men and citizens. The mere politician, equally with the pious man, ought to respect and to cherish them. A volume could not trace all their connections with private and public felicity. Let it simply be asked: Where is the security for property, for reputation, for life, if the sense of religious obligation desert the oaths which are the instruments of investigation in courts of justice ? And let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle."

    All of these seem to be good reasons to have "under God" in the Pledge. There is also the historical argument that the phrase "under God" or some variation has played an important rhetorical role in our history.

    Washington wasn't odd among the founders on the relationship between religion, liberty, and virtue. The people who crafted and ratified the First Amendment, for the most part, took for granted the connections between religion, morality, virtue, liberty and citizenship.

  5. Al,

    I'm not a fan of the pledge, whether or not it contains "under God." It's a forced conformity that never appealed to me. That said, I prefer this history and analysis of the Pledge of Allegiance in Slate.

    Consider this. With "under God" in the pledge, what is indivisible? One nation? Or God?

    Religious conservatives want a wall separating church from state. But their wall is a wall of turnstiles, allowing movement in one direction only -- from church to state.

    I favor as strict a separation of religion from state as is possible. Such an arrangement does no harm to religious people. They would be free to worship as they choose.

    I think a libertarian form of small government is the only way to achieve that goal. It would allow people the widest expression of faith without bumping into each other. Large government, on the other hand, inevitably leads to hard cases. For example, I don't want a teacher proselytizing at a public high school graduation, although I would allow the student valedictorian some leeway. That problem goes away if government gets out of the education business -- and that includes funding it too. So no vouchers. What a boon for home-schooling and stay-at-home motherhood. For those families that need help, let's find a way to help them without government coercion.

    What about abortion? Make the secular case against it, as is being done now. Resorting to "God said so" religious arguments doesn't work any more and isn't necessary. The well reasoned secular arguments I hear on Ave Maria Radio and EWTN seem to be changing people's minds.

    Don't get me wrong. I see a larger role for government than pure hardcore libertarians do, or those gun toting tea partiers. I like strong environmental standards as well as consumer and worker safety regulations. And when it comes to aiding other people when disaster strikes, such as in Haiti -- well, call me a bleeding heart libertarian. I'm not going to sweat it.

  6. I understand the conformity problem. This strikes me as more difficult than "under God". Certain religious groups have to opt out of the pledge simply because they can't pledge allegience to the nation-state, forget the phrase 'under God.'

    BTW, I'v always thought that the indivisibility of the republic or nation can plausibly be maintained because it is "under God" who is unity. I think this was Washington's thought in the Farewell Address as well. Lincoln makes similar statements even during the most divisive conflict in our history. It is God who is judging the nation for its failure to resolve the issue of slavery. But, Lincoln, also believes it is God's will for union.

    I think institutions can be separated e.g., church and state but it is impossible ot separate religion from public life. People by their nature will want the state to have some transcendent bearings. These should grow out of the nation's history.

    Civil religion can be a dangerous force and actually be opposed to Christianity and the Church but I have a more benign view of it in America because of our tradition on non-establishment.

    I'm with you on the role of the state in environmental matters. This seems about as obvious a case of public stewardship as anything I can think of.

  7. I just followed up on the Chesterton quote. I thought you were referring to the "Five times the church has gone to the dogs" quote. The Quotemeister page was excellent.

    The popular version of the quote is strictly fallacious but like a lot of Chestertonian wit serves a non-syllogistic purpose. I think the misquote is simply trying to get across the point that when man ceases to believe in God he will be, by his nature, led to stuff his head with God-substitutes.

    Ahlquist helped me out on quotations in the past. Thanks.

  8. Mauman,
    Greenberg's analysis seems to regard "under God" as a mere imposition rather than part of the longstanding relationship religion and politics have played in America.

    I think James Pierson's analysis is closer to the mark.