"Under God"–Or Not? Part II


Phaedrus replies to my argument that leaving the phrase “under god” in the Pledge is justifiable if not warranted by coming over all outraged that anyone could agree with Ted Olson about anything. I am not unaware that Olson’s history hints strongly that he is little more than a fire-breathing, right-wing, scum-sucking pig, but even a broken clock is right twice a day. I said he was right and Phaedrus wants to know: “Olson’s right? Right about what?” Here’s what Olson said:

Solicitor General Olson told the justices that the appeals court misunderstood the pledge. The phrase “under God” did not place the pledge in the category of religious expressions that the Supreme Court has found unconstitutional, he said, for example “state-sponsored prayers, religious rituals or ceremonies, or the requirement of teaching or not teaching a religious doctrine.”

Absolutely correct. The mere insertion of the word “god” in the Pledge does not create or even suggest the establishment of a state religion without further modification. If the phrase were to be reworded “under Christ” or “under Buddha” or “praise be to Allah”, then Phaedrus would be right. All of those forms would be unConstitutional. Phaedrus asks, “That ‘under God’ in the pledge is not a religious statement?”, and my answer is: a) not necessarily; and b) even if it is, that’s not prohibited. Without further emphasis, all it does is acknowledge the role of religious faith both in the founding of the country and in the past and present life of the country, and that is far from unConstitutional.

P: …any way you look at, including maja’s way, it’s an unconstitutional establishment of religion.

Nonsense. It establishes NOTHING. “God” is a generic term, owned by nobody and by everybody. Every religion in the world uses it, and they all mean something different when they do. To argue that its mere use by the govt constitutes “establishment” is as if Heinz was arguing that using the word “ketchup” on its label constitutes Heinz’s established “ownership” of any and all companies that make ketchup. It’s ridiculous.

NO clause in the Consitution prevents public acknowledgement of religion, nor would the Framers have stood for such a clause. Why? Once again, Olson:

Rather, Mr. Olson said, “under God” was one of various “civic and ceremonial acknowledgments of the indisputable historical fact that caused the framers of our Constitution and the signers of the Declaration of Independence to say that they had the right to revolt and start a new country.” He said the framers believed “that God gave them the right to declare their independence when the king has not been living up to the unalienable principles given to them by God.”

Every word in that graf is historical fact (except the phrase “civic and ceremonial acknowledgement”, which is arguable) and a perfectly fair and accurate characterization of both the Declaration and everything you will find on the subject in the Federalist Papers. The Founders were all religious men of one stripe or another, and they wanted to ensure that the public life of the new United States was tolerant of all religious viewpoints. They realized that to do that meant preventing the new state from establishing its own religion or adopting one it would then force everyone to follow, as in England. It never occured to them to banish acknowledgement of a deity from governmental discourse, and if it had, they would have rejected it outright.

Jefferson wrote in his letter to the Danbury Baptists (the origin of the phrase “a wall of separation between Church & State”), “Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship….” (emphasis added). With that phrase, Jefferson defines precisely what “makes no establishment” in the Constitution means: that the govt will not be allowed to do anything that either abridges or promotes the free expression of one religion at the expense of others. The words “under god” in the Pledge do neither. You’d have a much better case–and cause–if you wanted to ban the daily Senate Invocation, which is the closest we’ve ever come to establishing a govt religion (so far).

Phaedrus again:

And how about this? If it’s not meant as a profession of faith, if it’s really there to honor the faith of our Founding Fathers, how ’bout we change to something a little more accurate and drop even the appearance of a profession of faith? Something like, “. . . one Nation, acknowledging the beneficial beliefs of the Founding Fathers . . .”

Fine with me. Avoids the whole problem of religion and lands the honor where it belongs. If you wanted to get close to what the Deists meant, you could change it to “under Nature”, which could be a real problem for developers. Also fine with me. “Under Reason” would work, too. Personally, I like that even better, though it has the drawback of not giving developers apoplexy.

I mean, if “under God” really honors the beliefs of the Founding Fathers, shouldn’t we say that. What the hell is this, a guessing game? “Bobby, what do you think ‘under God’ means in the pledge?” There, that should satisfy everyone. Whadda ya mean it won’t? Why the hell not?

Oh, bull. It’s not that confusing, and anyway if the question is asked it’s a great lead-in to a discussion of what the Founders believed and how those beliefs affected their decision to break away from England and what kind of country to have once the break was made.

Let’s cut to the chase. The phrase isn’t confusing to anyone, but some atheists find it offensive. Understandable and maybe a better argument, but “offensive” does not an establishment make, no matter how much you’d like it to. What it implies or infers is irrelevant: it establishes NOTHING; it is an expression of religious belief and the Constitution does not forbid the public expression of religious feeling even if that expression may offend someone else–in fact it protects that freedom especially when the expression offends those who do not believe the same way. In refusing to allow the state expression of religion as distinct from its state establishment–a very different thing–you are in effect seeking to do to others what you claim to be trying to prevent for yourself: banning an expression of religion that you find offensive because of where it comes from.

Nobody knows, so it doesn’t make a fuck. I don’t know what the fuck it is these days with people saying (Deepish voice, projecting through the nose [kinda like milk, when you were a kid]), “We must follow the intent of the Founding Fathers.” What?

Now now, since you’re arguing with me, please stick to what I say without imputing to me the words or motives of other people for whom I am not responsible. I said, If the phrase is included in a National Pledge we must take the reference to be to the word as used by the people who formed the Nation. It cannot rightfully be taken in any other context without violating logic. It is far more illogical to assume it means something else. Why would it? Your argument seems to rest on origin:

Macpherson Docherty presented an idea to his congregation. He came upon the idea independently and apparently not realizing any other effort was underway. From his pulpit that faithful day, he explained, “It struck me [while talking with my son about the Pledge] that it [the pledge] didn’t mention God,”. “I was brought up in Scotland, and in Scotland, we sang, ‘God save our gracious king.’ It was everybody’s belief that God was part of society.”

Well, I’m arguing that in this instance origin and motivation are irrelevant because there are reasons to include it that surpass its humble beginnings. But even if we accept that origin is relevant, we are still left with the fact that, religiously-motivated or not, the phrase–absent specific qualifiers–may express religion but doesn’t establish one. The weakness in your argument isn’t that “god” is primarily a religious word, it’s in the assumption that simply saying it establishes an official religion. The onus is on you: How does it do that?

I’m gonna take on maja’s argument on the Declaration of Independence, but not because it has anything to do with “under God” in the pledge. It doesn’t. Maj, how can the Declaration be unconstitutional? It’s not a law, it’s not part of the constitution, for purposes of American government it doesn’t even exist.

Jeez, I hope you’re not trying to tell me that the Pledge is. Reality check? If your criteria for unConstitutionality is in the quote above, you just lost the argument.

Even if “under God” “must” be taken to mean the God of the Founding Fathers, how does that make it OK? Government is professing faith in the God of the Founding Fathers.

Not “professing”; “acknowledging”. There’s a difference, like the difference between “expressing” and “establishing”.

The only dog that should count in this fight is the Godless Constitution. How in the world can it be constitutional to inflict upon people a profession of faith and to ascribe to the government a submission to faith. Under God. It means subjugation to God. And it is, without a doubt, unconstitutional to make it a part of government.

As I said before, this is absolutely the weakest part of the argument for removing the phrase. Let’s refresh with the actual wording:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion….

That’s all it says. It doesn’t say the govt can’t express religious feelings or thoughts or beliefs. It says it can’t establish one in preference to others, in other words, a state religion. The words in the Pledge don’t establish because they don’t single out one religion over the rest. Your problem is that they single out religion over non-religion. Well, sorry, but there’s no Constitutional prohibition against doing that. You may not like it, but there isn’t. It ain’t there, and the fear that allowing expression of religion by the state is the thin end of the wedge driving toward establishment, true or not, doesn’t count until the wedge crosses the line.

The First Amendment, contrary to your apparent belief, doesn’t prevent religion in government. It prevents one religion from dominating and using the power of the state to subjugate other religions. And that’s all. Even if you could make a successful case that “under god” establishes that govt considers itself somehow “submissive” to some generic religious principles, so what? That’s not prohibited until and unless it shows a preference for a decidedly specific, non-generic set of religious principles belonging to only one sect. The phrase “under god” isn’t specific enough, as I said at the top, to rise to that level.

You wanna put an honorific in about the Founding Fathers’ beliefs, I got no problem with that. But you are not honoring the Founding Father’s beliefs when you profess their belief’s. You’re professing their beliefs, which is a religious act.

As I said already, I don’t think “professing” is the right word, but even if it were that doesn’t alter the fact that the Constitution doesn’t forbid it in general form. If you want it to do that, you’re going to need to amend the First Amendment so it says that.

Suppose you and me go around asking every kid in America between the ages of 5 and 11 what they think “under God” in the pledge means, how many are gonna give us your spiel about the Founding Fathers?

Oh, come on. Are we to pass laws now only if they can be understood by children 5-11? If you’re referring to the fact that kids in school say it, ban it from schools. I’ve never thought it should be there. It’s indoctrination when you force kids to pledge “allegiance”–wanna go around with me and ask those same kids what the word “allegiance” means?–when they don’t understand what it is or why they’re doing it. I have contended for a long time that the Pledge should a) not be compulsory; and b) not be in schools below college level (where, ironically, it isn’t found at all) because that’s when you first become truly capable of understanding what you’re doing when you “pledge allegiance.” Maybe the last 2 years of high school…. But that’s a separate issue.

It’s plainly a religious expression and plainly unconstitutional.

I’m repeating this because it’s your whole position in a nutshell. So I’ll put mine in one as well.

Religious establishment is unConstitutional. Religious expression is not, not even when it is the govt doing the expressing.

You’d have to torture the First Amendment to get your interpretation out of it.

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