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On the God Issue, Let's Take the Pledge

Empires, not democracies, fuse church and state.

June 28, 2002|JAMES P. PINKERTON | James P. Pinkerton writes a column for Newsday in New York.

Everyone agrees that the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruling banning the words "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance won't last. That's too bad.

The United States should stand tall by itself and not exist as an object under anyone's interpretation of religion.

To be sure, the court's decision was poorly thought out. The three-judge panel opined that reference to God was equivalent to a declaration "that we are a nation 'under Jesus,' a nation 'under Vishnu,' a nation 'under Zeus,' or a nation 'under no god.' " Huh? "God" is, after all, a generic term for a deity, whereas Jesus, Vishnu and Zeus are specific names, and no god is, well, no god.

No wonder the decision is being derided everywhere. Words such as "outrageous" and "idiotic" and "just nuts" filled the airwaves; the Senate voted 99 to 0 to deplore the ruling, and Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.) was quick to volunteer that if necessary Congress would act to pass a constitutional amendment.

But if the words "under God" are so vital, why weren't they in the pledge until 1954? The U.S. managed to get along for nearly two centuries without asking for God's help every morning in home room--indeed, the pledge didn't exist in any form until 1892.

To be sure, oaths are a good idea, for this nation and for every nation. As the French sociologist Emile Durkheim observed: "There can be no society which does not feel the need of upholding and reaffirming at regular intervals the collective sentiments and the collective ideas which make its unity." But if so, we might think hard about what sort of unity we strive for.

Forget for the moment that plenty of folks are left out of the "under God" formulation--atheists, pantheists, polytheists. Think instead of those whose faith, be it Baptist, Catholic or Wahhabi, might come ahead of state. That's why the national motto "e pluribus unum"--out of many, one--is far more valuable for a complex country than "In God We Trust."

The events of Sept. 11 should have heightened concern about the national well-being, not about God's will. The firefighters at the World Trade Center didn't die for God; they died for the people of New York, and for the U.S. in general. It might be nice to think that they're all in heaven, but of course fans of Mohamed Atta think that he and the other 18 Al Qaeda hijackers are in heaven too.

It could be that the whole flap is nothing more than a ritualized exercise in civic hypocrisy, in which politicians seek to expand their own power at the expense of the liberty that comes from the separation of church and state. Is that an unreasonable conclusion in watching lawmakers scramble to be pledgier than thou? The winner in that contest seems to be Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), who led a posse of pious politicians onto the steps of the Capitol for a round of pledge-allegiancing. And yet the republic still stands.

Still, watching leaders stand on the steps of that neoclassical building reciting incantations of chosen words, one was reminded of other politicians who in the past wrapped themselves in the righteousness of the divine. It was self-serving for the solons, maybe even a bit queasy-making to behold, but it worked for those in charge.

As the great historian Edward Gibbon observed of the Roman empire at its peak, the two powers, religious and political, were fused into one tool of social control. It was cynical but it worked: "The various modes of worship which prevailed in the Roman world were all considered by the people as equally true; by the philosophers as equally false; and by the magistrates as equally useful."

In those days, the politicians didn't care what deity people worshiped, as long as they worshiped the politicians at the same time.

Of course, what's useful for empires is not so good for democracies. The San Francisco judges may have gotten their legal reasoning wrong, and they certainly got their political spin wrong, but they showed historical wisdom. In pledging, it's best to keep the state and God separate, no matter how desperate politicians might be to combine the two devotions into one aggrandizing state-religion.

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