say it! say “under god”!

Okay, friends and neighbors. Let’s talk a bit about the Pledge of Allegiance.

There’s another court challenge regarding the Pledge in the state of Massachusetts right now. Some atheist parents are suing the state over the recital of the Pledge in public school every morning because it contains the words “under God”, which they consider an unconstitutional violation of the Establishment clause of the First Amendment. Naturally, as happens every time when a court case regarding the religious component of the Pledge comes up, the comments of the “Under God” supporters take two very predictable thrusts:

“If those atheists don’t like saying ‘under God’, maybe they should just move somewhere else, because something something CHRISTIAN NATION.”

“The First Amendment guarantees freedom of religion, not freedom from religion! It also says ‘…nor prohibiting the free exercise thereof!’”

Every single time, the comments are a variation of those two arguments. And every time, it makes me profoundly sad and upset that so many people who otherwise proclaim their love of freedom and constitutional limits on government are not only clueless about the implications of the Establishment clause, but actively in favor of government requiring the recitation of religious affirmations (as long as it’s the majority religion, of course.)

The problem with the Pledge as it is challenged isn’t that it contains the words “under God”. The problem is that the recitation is part of the public school curriculum—in all practicality a mandatory recitation—and that public school teachers, paid employees of the government, are required to lead it. They are the agents of the same state whose scope of delegated powers is limited by the Constitution. The State is not allowed to prevent students from exercising their own religion as long as it does not interfere with school business. (And don’t start the “ZOMG they kicked God out of school” tripe unless you want me to challenge you to provide a single documented incident where public school students aren’t allowed to carry Bibles in their backpack to read in their own time, or to form prayer clubs with other like-minded students.) The flip side of that coin is that the State also cannot compel the students to perform religious observances of any kind. And when you make the recitation of an oath with a religious component mandatory, you violate the religious rights of the students who do not share that faith.

(The objection that “nobody HAS to recite the Pledge” is irrelevant because it disregards that the State doesn’t even have the right to ask the student to choose when it comes to religious observances. And religious exercise must always be an opt-in rather than an opt-out.)

“But wait!” you say. “If the vast majority of students believes in God, shouldn’t the majority get to choose whether the class professes that we’re one nation under Him? Why should the irreligious minority hold the majority hostage when it comes to faith?”

The First Amendment doesn’t protect popular speech because popular speech doesn’t need a Bill of Rights to protect it. And it doesn’t protect the religious rights of just the religious majority. It protects the rights of the outliers, the oddballs, the religious minorities that would otherwise get overridden by the bigger religious factions on the block. When it comes to the Bill of Rights, majority preference is not only irrelevant, but the opposition of majority weight is the very reason for its existence. Our Founding Fathers knew from history that without strong minority protections of basic rights, fifty-one percent of the population would be able to vote the rights of the other forty-nine percent away. That’s why in our system of constitutionally limited government, we get to decide all kinds of things by majority vote, but not any of the basic rights enumerated in the Bill of Rights. In other words, you and your street can’t gang up on that weird dude at the end of the block and decide whether he has the right to attend the church he goes to, or whether he has the right to not go to church at all.

This is quite simply not an infringement on your right to practice your own religion, which ends when it touches on someone else’s religious rights. Your religious rights do not give you the ability to use the state to make my children acknowledge the existence and supremacy of your god. You cannot use the state for that purpose even if nobody in the room objects because they all share your faith.

This is not a matter of majority will. It’s not a matter of degree. It’s a matter of principle—the principle that it’s none of the government’s stinkin’ business if you pray, how you pray, to whom you pray, or what the content of your prayer is.

Would it be OK for the local Muslim community to require the school to make the kids recite “Allah is Greatest” every morning? What if they allow you to opt out? No? (I can just imagine the heads exploding all over the country if anyone seriously suggested such a thing—the Muslims asking for the right that the Christian majority has claimed for itself.) Well, if they don’t have that right—and the Bill of Rights says they do not—then you don’t have the right to have the teachers ask my kids to profess that there is a God, and that this nation is subject to Him.

And yes, freedom of religion automatically means freedom from religion, no matter what those bumper stickers say. If you have the right to be a Christian, it follows that you have the right to not be a Muslim, Jew, Buddhist, Zoroastrian, pagan, and so on. And whether the religious majority likes it or not, it means that you have the right to not be religious at all.

25 responses

  1. once again you make a much better argument than Tam. I say that rather sadly. I remember atheist arguing that their morals are just as good as any religious institution. I also remember being a hormone raging teenager.

    I wonder what the next 10 years will bring?

  2. Thanks for a very clear and complete explanation of the principles at work here. It’s pretty simply, really. I would, however, disagree with one detail: that “The problem with the Pledge … isn’t that it contains the words ‘under God’.”

    I think that _is_ a major part of the problem, although you may have covered that by specifying, “… as it is challenged ….”. Again, thanks for much-needed clarity.

    == Michael Höhne

  3. Pretty good sermon there, Rev.

    And I’m not just being facetious; it is not for naught that your longest blog essay in some time is preaching the gospel of atheism.

    You have said in the past (and could argue that you have said in this post) that atheism is not just another religion, that is not borne out by what goes on in the halls of “higher learning” these days. While it is anecdotal data to be sure, my interactions with college level professors and students alike indicate not only substantial discussion and debate regarding Intelligent Design, but a nearly universal disdain and belittling of such beliefs on the part of instructors along with attempted scientific disproval even in classes unrelated to science and theology, to the extent that students will often demur so as to avoid being labeled an ignorant jeezofreak, and may even come to question or disavow their sacred beliefs.

    That’s propagation of a religion all right, and it is practiced and force-fed on a daily basis all across the spectrum of advanced learning in this country, including institutions that receive substantial support from and operate under the auspices of .gov. And while your point that separation of church and state is central and critical to freedom as spelled out in the bill of rights is unquestionably correct, that point is invalid unless and until the practice of atheism as a religion is acknowledged and accepted, and joins all others in being separated from state subsidy .

    • 1.) If atheism is a religion, baldness is a hair color. If you stretch the definition of “religion” to include atheism, the term becomes meaningless, and any set of people with one common belief or characteristic become a religion.
      2.) Intelligent Design is theology, not science, because the claim at its core is non-falsifiable.
      3.) How do you propose the state remain neutral in matters of religion if even non-belief is classified as religion?

      • All kidding aside, there is a difference between “lack of belief” (or “non-belief”, to use your word choice) and active disbelief.

        “I know the answer!” is an affirmative declaration, even when “the answer” is that the subject doesn’t exist.

        “I dunno,” is NOT an affirmative declaration, even when followed up with , “But, in the absense of evidence of existance, I’m assuming absense, period,” or even “I dunno, don’t think we can EVER know, and don’t give a damn on eway or the other anyways”.

        Which is why, strictly speaking, “agnostic” is a scientific position, while both theism and atheism are positions of religious faith — the latter two each claim to have KNOWLEDGE of something they cannot factually prove. (Note, that DOESN’T make atheism a “religion”. Hell, “theism” isn’t a “religion” – theism, strictly speaking, means only that you belive that there are, or were, one or more gods, but doesn’t require you pick out which ones. Both atheism and theism are opinions on religious matters – but an actual religion requires more than just saying “Yes there are or have been Magical Sky People,” or “No, Magical Sky People do not, and never have, existed.”)

      • I think what is needed here is an expansion of definition and understanding. As another commenter termed it, “active disbelief” takes on the primary characteristic of religion: proselytizing. And that is what is going on at universities; proselytizing against is just as much a religious quest as proselytizing for. Maybe instead of focusing on the injected words “under God”, people who object to state-mandated allegiance should focus on eliminating state-subsidized education from top to bottom. Because religion per se is not the only state-mandated infringement of rights and freedoms there.

        And in that vein of expanded understanding:

        1) Baldness rarely is total; there’s color there, even if it’s hidden sub-derm and on clothed parts.

        2) Religion (or active non-belief) is certainly not science but theology, and activism for it or ag’in it has no place in other studies…most especially not on my dime.

        3) See 2) above.

      • I must disagree with your first point.

        Atheism is just as much a religion as any other brand of ‘belief’.

        Some people believe in a series of ideas and concepts that involve a higher power, and aggressively preach and attempt to convert other people to believe likewise.

        Some people believe in a series of ideas and concepts that explicitly deny a higher power, and aggressively preach and attempt to convert other people to believe likewise.

        Personally, I’m agnostic. I neither disbelieve, nor believe in a higher power. Both arguments previously listed require facts not in evidence. Therefore, for me, the jury’s out.

        If it looks like a duck, walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, it’s a religion.

        I leave the argument as to which path of belief is subjectively better for another time and place.

      • No? That is all it is about Tam; unlike your pledge piece questioning the mandatory pledge itself, Marko’s objects only to the “under God” inclusion, in support of the cited atheist challenge. And speaking of insecurity, I don’t think Marko needs you to run interference for him.

        • And speaking of insecurity, I don’t think Marko needs you to run interference for him.

          I don’t think he does, so I wasn’t. This being a comments section, I was commenting.

        • Look, I’m a theist — Christian variety. Raised traditional Roman Catholic. One who truly believes we are “one nation, under God,” and I’ll say it clearly:

          The phrase “under God” turns the Pledge of Allegiance into the _Prayer_ of Allegience, and renders it unConstitutional as a government-promulgated recitation, ESPECIALLY in government schools.

          The words “under God” were added SPECIFICALLY in order to convert the Pledge of Allegience into a religious prayer. That is unquestionable — that goal was STATED as such by the people who pushed Congress into acting (the Catholic fraternal organziation Knights of Columbus; i.e. “Masonry for Papists”), the Congressscritters who argued to have the words inserted, and the signing statement of the President who signed it. Likewise, the point of transmuting the Pledge into a prayer was specifically stated by these same people to FORCE American schoolchildren to PRAY every day.

          That’s a First Amendment violation. You really can’t get much more blatant than that, unless POTUS started receiving a bright red yamulka and a kissing ring from the hands of the pope as part of the inaugaration.

  4. I just always left the “under God” part out of it when I recited the pledge with my kids. When I was attending U.S. schools, I was young enough not to question it. And I tell my kids to do what they want, leave it in, take it out, don’t recite. It’s up to them.

  5. Per Wikipedia- which is not always correct but in this case it is..

    The Pledge of Allegiance was written in 1892 by Francis Bellamy (1855–1931), who was a Baptist minister…
    the original pledge that I recited as a kid ..

    “I pledge allegiance to my Flag and the Republic for which it stands, one nation indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”

    The addition of under God was placed in the pledge in 1954 by the religious right but NOT adopted by all schools!

    To clarify one other point .. This Nation was not founded on Christianity There is not a mention of God nor Jesus in the Constitution of the United States. Just the word creator in which a large number of the DEISTS used to differentiate from the Christian word God . Jefferson Franklin and even Washington ( who attended a christian church but always stepped outside during sacraments) .

    During the age of enlightenment– Deist did not believe in the trinity and that Jesus was Not “the son of god”

    This diatribe is not to start argument but you just can’t make up your own facts to suit your ideologies. oh yea I live in the South and another interesting note was the Baptist then know as the Re- Baptists were one of the most despised religions in the colonies. They a splinter group religion now that they have become the largest Protestant religion were one of the groups who pushed that freedom from religion thingy in our new government :-) Now that they have become the largest Protestant religion in the USA they now have switched their tune.. Aaaaah America.

    Before everyone starts commenting that I am anti American, I served in the military from 1966-1974 and three of those year were in SEAsia –Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia whooopps that’s right we weren’t in Laos or Cambodia. :-)

  6. I don’t think freedom of religion was equated to freedom from religion until the Supreme Court decisions in the 1960s. What does that mean when applied to freedom of speech?

  7. At parties, I have for the last 30+ years firmly exerted self-discipline to not engage in discussions/arguments on politics or religion.

    This is what happens when you combine them.

    In the early ’70s, one of my grade-school teachers was nearly fired for teaching us the Pledge of Allegiance as he had learned it in the ’40s, sans the “Under God”. He was evidently never comfortable with the words having been added out of fear of creeping Communism in the ’50s, and told us so. Some of the class simply took a breath when “Under God” rolled around, and started back in at “with Liberty….”. Startlingly enough, those that did say it really didn’t much care about those of us that didn’t, and vice versa.

    I do not demand that you believe what I do, and I have no intention of oppressing the minority into affirming a belief in God.

    I also have no intention of allowing the minority to deny me an opportunity to affirm my belief in God, should I wish to do so.

    Try to deny it all you’d like, but many atheist groups today are attempting to actively persecute the religious freedoms of (mostly) Christians with all of the zealotry of Cotton Mather pursuing the alleged Wiccans in the vicinity of Salem. Lawsuits filed by the ACLU and other actively anti-Christian organizations seek not to stop persecution, but to reverse it, outlawing even informal observance in many situations in direct conflict with the pesky “or prohibiting the free exercise thereof” that is ignored as often as the Second Amendment is – and by mostly the same people.

    As an individual, I am my own smallest minority. My protections under the Constitution are guaranteed to me as an individual, not as part of a group. I DO NOT lose any of those rights simply because I happen to be of Teutonic ancestry and practice the Christian faith, and thus am demographically included in other minorities and majorities that are larger than some others.

    Any government or group that will not stand up for my rights as an individual cannot claim to stand for the rights of minorities, and my minority rights cannot be curtailed to please other minorities any more than theirs should be to please me.

    Try not to ignore that the 1947 U.S. Supreme Court decision Everson v. Board of Education which incorporated the “Establishment Clause” established three tests, the second of which is stated as: “its principal or primary effect neither advances nor inhibits religion”. (The other two tests are: “the statute (or practice) has a secular purpose”, and “does not foster an excessive government entanglement with religion”.

    There are many groups actively engaged in chopping down the “advances” portion of Test #2, while very conveniently ignoring totally the “nor inhibits” part.

    If we do not allow teachers to promote religion in our public schools, we cannot allow them to repress religion either.

  8. Well said Marko, but I don’t think any of the religious people pushing inclusion of a blatantly religious practice into a state-mandated, government-run ceremony will be convinced.

    We just got our City Council to stop (after threatened lawsuits) saying “In Jesus name,” after their in-session prayers to start their meetings and you’d think it was the end of the world. They won’t budge on simply not praying in session.

  9. Politics and Religion have been the driving forces behind this Country since it’s inception. The founders were well aware of the “State Run” Religions in the original Colonies and the internal struggles that occurred. Even those colonies that did not have a State sanctioned religions had stringent rules on exactly what was acceptable religions and practices.

    It wasn’t till 1954 at the peak of McCarthyism that the Congress adopted the phrase “Under God” to the pledge of allegiance.

    I still say the Pledge but also leave out the words -under god- when repeating the words.
    WHY ? Because I have a different few on religion which can best be summed up by a rabbi who I consider a friend. – No I am not Jewish

    Everything is a manifestation of the one thing I call God.

    * God is not good; good and bad are human categories about which God cares not one bit.

    * Life is not controllable, but you can learn to navigate it, and do some good in the process.

    * Thoughts and feelings are not controllable directly by the will, but you can do what’s right regardless.

    * Religion is a human invention designed to give us the illusion of control from which we can then create a sense of meaning and purpose without admitting we are creating it. In truth, we have no control, we invent what meaning there is, and purpose is only a story we tell to hide from the specter of randomness that haunts us.

    * Life has no purpose; life is purpose.

    * Sacred texts always reflect the bias of their authors and intended audience. Don’t be surprised that the Torah’s Jews are God’s Chosen; that the Gospels make Jesus the Christ; that the Bhagavad Gita sees Krishna as God; that the Qur’an holds Mohammad as the final Prophet; or that Harry Potter makes Harry rather than Hermione the hero.

    * Priests, rabbis, pastors, imams, swamis, lamas, and gurus sometimes have your best interest in mind, and always have their best interests at heart. Learn from them, but never turn your life over to them.

    * At its best religion is about personal freedom, social justice, and compassion for all living things. At its worst it is about power and control. Religion is rarely at its best.

    * Human beings can be taught to see through propaganda—religious, political, commercial, etc.—overcome its divisiveness, create loving communities, and glimpse the truth through science, art, music, literature, and spiritual practice. What we lack are the teachers to do this.

    * Spiritual practice cuts through self and selfishness, reduces conflict, and increases compassion. And that is the best we can do.

  10. In my classroom the students can recite it or not, as they see fit. They *do* have to stand, though, and that is always a battle as most of them aren’t in the country legally. I tell them as long as they’re attending this school they will show respect for the government that’s paying for it.

  11. Sovereign citizens of the United States should not be required to take loyalty oaths.

    Civil servants should be required to take loyalty oaths to their masters ( us ), every fucking day.

  12. The problem with the Pledge isn’t that it contains the words “under God,” it’s that it contains the word “indivisible.”

    (Exeunt, grumbling.)

  13. A major problem with religion and even agnosticism is that there is no real definition of god.

    How can people believe in something that cannot be even defined? How can anyone be agnostic about something that is not even definable?

    What would differentiate another life form from god?

    If (when) there exist life forms or entities that are not within our world view and understanding, how do you devide to give them the status of god? What if there are several types of such entities – how do you decide which of them are gods and which are just alien life forms? Which one of those will you give authority over your life and your culture?

    Please define what god is and only after that let us discuss religion and agnosticism.

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