Pledging Allegiance To Fundamentalism
A Christian socialist who turned his back on religion. That's the guy whose handiwork politicians of both parties and religious right leaders rushed to defend this past week.
Francis Bellamy, a Baptist minister in upstate New York who sermonized against the materialism of the Gilded Age and who resigned from his church after businessmen cut off funding because of his socialist activities and lectures, wrote the Pledge of Allegiance in 1892. Now his words, composed for a magazine-sponsored school program celebrating the quadricentennial of Columbus Day, are treated as a sacred writ. Holy irony!
When a three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals (based in where else but San Francisco) ruled 2-1 that the pledge is unconstitutional and cannot be recited in public schools because of the "under God" phrase, no microphone on Capitol Hill was safe. Senators and House members scampered before television cameras to denounce this decision. Senator Hillary Clinton said she was "offended by the decision." House majority leader Dick Armey called it "one of the most asinine things I ever heard." Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle declared it "nuts." He immediately orchestrated a 99-0 vote in the Senate condemning the decision. A hundred or so House members, led by House Speaker Denny Hastert and House majority whip Tom DeLay, put aside such pressing business as raising the debt ceiling (so the United States does not default), overseeing the war on terrorism, crafting the new department for homeland security and developing legislation for a prescription drug benefit to hit the steps of the Capitol and recite the pledge and sing "God Bless America." From the G8 summit in Canada, George W. Bush bashed the decision as "ridiculous." Politicians moved to gain political advantage. In Montana, the Republican Senate nominee, Mike Taylor, attacked the Democratic incumbent, Max Baucus, for having once voted against splitting the 9th Circuit Court into two districts. Senate minority leader Trent Lott blamed Democrats for not acting quickly enough on Bush's judicial appointments. And all this was before the gabbers of cable-newsland could sink their teeth into the story.
Are the politicians and politicos capable of not overreacting to this type of news? (After all, almost every legal expert agrees the decision is likely to be overturned.) Of course not.
On CNN's "Connie Chung Tonight," the eponymous host grilled Michael Newdow, the California parent (or, as The Washington Post called him, "the Sacramento atheists") who brought this case -- and argued it himself -- because he did not want his daughter to be confronted in her second-grade class each day by a ritual proclaiming there is a God. (The California education code requires public schools to begin the day with an "appropriate patriotic exercise," and reciting the pledge qualifies as such.) Rather than delve into the meaty legal issues of the case -- Is the pledge an endorsement of God? Is asking a child to say the pledge actually a request the kid affirm monotheism? -- Chung inquired of Newdow, "Are you proud to be American?" And, "Are you prepared ... [to be] the most hated man in America?" Newdow argued that he was fighting for the Constitution. To which Chung replied, "The whole Pledge of Allegiance has to do with being patriotic and supporting America and supporting the flag." Was she not listening? Newdow's objection was to the "under God" portion of the pledge, not the pledge itself. Chung also suggested Newdow's pursuit of this case "is far more damaging to" his daughter than having her feel like "an outsider" when the pledge is spoken in her classroom.
The response to the court's decision exposed the fundamentalism that weaves through American public life, where many, a la Chung, confuse the worship of God with patriotism. If only "Hardball" could book Francis Bellamy today. His version of the pledge did not contain a reference to God. Those two words were added in 1954, when Congress, reacting to a campaign by the Knights of Columbus, inserted those two words and turned the pledge into a public prayer of sorts. (The point was to contrast the godly United States of America with the godless Soviet Union.) So the pledge had worked just fine for 62 years without bringing the Big One into the picture. And according to a history of the pledge written by John Baer, Bellamy's granddaughter has maintained that Bellamy, who died in 1931, would have resented the alteration. He had, she noted, been forced out of his own church and in his later years, when he lived in Florida, stopped attending services because he was put off by segregation in churches. (Back in 1892, Bellamy had considered adding "equality" to the "liberty and justice for all" phrase, but he realized that would draw objections from people opposed to equality for women and African-Americans.)
Despite the history, the American fundamentalists -- which includes congressional Democrats -- seem to regard the reference to God as an essential component of the pledge. On Greta van Susteren's Fox News Channel show, the Reverend Jerry Falwell called the ruling "hostile to religion" and dubbed the judges "dumb and dumber." (By the way, one of the two judges was a Richard Nixon appointee, the other was a Jimmy Carter appointee.) Falwell repeatedly mentioned his Web site address and assailed "incompetent judges, many of whom seem to hate America." I waited for onetime Democratic strategist Susan Estrich, Falwell's debating partner, to raise the subject of hating America with Falwell. He was the fellow who two days after Sept. 11 appeared on Pat Robertson's television show and claimed that abortion rights advocates, pagans, gay rights advocates, the ACLU and the People for the American Way were to blame for the attack because they created an American society that has angered God. (When asked in early June by an interviewer if he believes "God sanctioned the mass murder of Sept. 11 ," Falwell refused to answer the question.) But this issue was never raised.
Before the pledge flap, Falwell was most recently in the news defending unneighborly anti-Islam comments made by the Reverend Jerry Vines at the Southern Baptist Pastors Conference. Vines stated that "Islam is not as good as Christianity" and that Allah, the God of Muslims, "is not" Jehovah, the God of Christians. I assume that in the Falwell-Vines view of the world, the "under God" portion of the pledge refers to a specific God, their God. (Otherwise, would they support substituting "under Allah" for "under God" in public schools with children from Muslim families?) This then would mean that the compulsory recitation of the pledge, per Falwell and Vines, is indeed the endorsement of a particular religion.
The court addressed this more generally: "The statement that the United States is a nation 'under God' is an endorsement of religion. It is a profession of a religious belief, namely, a belief in monotheism." And, the court noted, when President Dwight Eisenhower signed the 1954 act that mixed God with flag, he declared: "From this day forward, millions of our school children will daily proclaim ... the dedication of our nation and our people to the Almighty." That sure sounds like endorsing -- and enforcing -- a religious view.
It's no surprise that Falwell would use the occasion to preach fundamentalism and hatred (at least, hatred of judges). Or that flag-waving pols would wrap themselves in the pledge. Or that Bush, the son of a president who made the pledge a key issue in his 1988 campaign against Michael Dukakis, would follow suit. But after Bush had a night to ponder the court's decision -- you think he read it? -- he took pledge-mania fundamentalism a giant step further. At the summit, he opened a press conference with Russian president Vladmir Putin by saying, "We need common sense judges who understand that our rights were derived from God and those are the kind of judges I intend to put on the bench." That is a major -- and stunning -- policy declaration. Bush was announcing a new litmus test for judges. It's not just whether you're a conservative or constructionist (or meet the political needs of Karl Rove, Bush's uberstrategist). The question is, do you believe in God and believe that secular law follows the law of God? In other words, there are no atheists -- or agnostics -- in Bush's chambers.
Did Bush realize what he was saying? Is he going to ask all potential judicial nominees to tell him their view of God and the derivation of rights? How is this fundamentalism -- only believers need apply -- different from that of America's enemies?
The 9th Circuit Court panel's decision surely will not stand. Few judges -- or justices -- are going to challenge the nation's basic attitudes toward God and patriotism, no matter their constitutional obligations. But praise these two appeal judges -- Alfred Goodwin and Stephen Reinhardt -- for rendering a gutsy decision and for flushing American fundamentalism into the open. Francis Bellamy would probably tip his hat to them -- and then cry over what his pledge has become.
David Corn is Washington editor of The Nation.