The Pledge of Allegiance, Part III: Change the Constitution?


I had some idea that a discussion with Phaedrus about the Pledge might lead to a general discussion about the limits of religion in govt, an issue that is going to become increasingly important as the theocratic movement gets its legs under it and starts to roll. If Bush wins a second term that’s going to happen much earlier and much faster than if he doesn’t, but his loss isn’t going to stop them. They have been–and are–working on infiltrating religious beliefs from the local level. Their tactics revolve principally around an assault on school curricula a la the attempt to sneak creationism into science classrooms disguised as a “competing theory.” They have targeted school boards, forced legislatures and governors to appoint sympathizers to their state education depts, attacked colleges as “secularist” (well, duh…), and worked in if not controlled the campaigns of Christian-right candidates. But they have also targeted the courts–viz Roy Moore–in an attempt to force them to acknowledge the right of US courts to include consideration of Christian law in their deliberations. We need NOW to start figuring out where those limits are and reinforcing them. The Pledge seemed like as good a place to start as any.

I think a lot of people are confused about where the lines are. It seemed to me that a discussion like this might help eliminate some of the confusion, and even if it doesn’t, the give-and-take would at least help explicate the gulf between the two sides. Well, let’s see.

Just for your personal info, I was joking about Olson.

Just for your personal info, I was having some fun with your pretend contempt.

Does not even suggest the establishment of a religion? I would like for you to explain to me how that’s anything other than a statement of pure opinion. Buddhists, atheists, Taoists, and probably o[t]hers don’t believe in God. etc etc etc

It’s called “exaggeration for effect”. The point is that “god” is a generic religious term, not a specific religious term. *Lots* (that better?) of religions use it that have nothing else in common–Judaism and Ancient Rome, for example.

As for the “pure opinion”, it’s hardly that. “Establishment” is a legal term because the Constitution is a legal document. What I was trying to explain is how “establishment” has been defined legally up to now and giving you examples to show the difference between “establishment” and “expression” as it has been understood by the courts. That’s not “opinion”, that’s fact. Olson was right when he said the courts have historically drawn a line and right about, roughly, where he said they’d drawn it. Based on precedent–which is what he was arguing, of course–the phrase “under god” isn’t unConsitutional because it doesn’t violate the standard set by precedent. With me so far? We’ll come back to this later.

God is not a generic term. You’re arguing that the word God has no meaning.

No. I’m not. I’m saying the word “god” has a general meaning, not a specific one, like “mammal” has a general meaning. A dolphin and a dog have very little in common but they’re both mammals. I said, “Every religion in the world uses it.” Your reply:

That’s nonsense too. Atheists, Agnostics, Buddhists, and Taoist, that I know of off-hand, don’t use it.,

Well, they wouldn’t, would they? They’re not religions. After giving me a dictionary definition of “god” as a “supreme being” or “creator”:

Course, you can argue with the dictionary.

I don’t need to. It’s irrelevant. You’re missing the point.

There’s this weird belief, and apparently you hold it, that typically American expressions of religion are totally inoffensive. Well they’re not. I know, because I’m offended.

So what? Again, you’re missing the point. It doesn’t matter whether or not you’re offended. That’s not legal grounds for declaring “establishment”. And more importantly it must NEVER become legal grounds for doing so, or you would force the law to take the very step you claim to be trying to stop, for having once successfully argued in a court of law that being “offended” is grounds for limiting religious expression, you will have opened the door to the suppression of religious expression that people may find offensive. I don’t think that’s what you intend, but that could be the effect of your position, legally.

[I]f a Hindu or Buddhist or Atheist kid refuses to participate in the teacher led pledge, there’s a good chance he’ll have to account for it on the playground, and he’ll probably be outnumbered by a bunch of little fundamentalist bully lunatics.

That’s a reason to ban the Pledge from schools, not a reason to remove the words.

What [the Constitution] forbids is government acknowledging and fostering religion….

No, it doesn’t. That’s where you’re confused. Legally, going by precedent again, it allows acknowledgement but forbids fostering. You insist on combining the two but the law makes a distinction between them. One is OK, the other isn’t.

[A]rguing, “Oh, geez, it’s only tepid religion.” Doesn’t change a thing for me.

You get emotional about this, don’t you? Now you’re getting “tepid” confused with “generic”. We’re talking about the law. Think of “generic” as a scientific term like “species”

The vast majority of Americans have never thought “under God” means what you and Ted Olson say it does.

“The vast majority of Americans” aren’t lawyers. If they were, they would. They’d have to.

It establishes a limit on personal beliefs by telling people that their beliefs are wrong. Tell me this. Do you believe the government has the right to say atheism, or any other belief, is wrong? That’s exactly what the pledge does.

No, it doesn’t. Affirming one belief isn’t automatically or intrinsically a denigration of other beliefs. Does a Catholic affirming his belief in the Holy Mother Church mean he is saying that a Jew doesn’t have the right to go to Temple? Is a Jew affirming his belief in Jehovah claiming that a Muslim has no right to worship Allah? Of course not. Once again, the problem is not with the Pledge itself but with the insistence on making it compulsory. That’s what’s probably unConstitutional.

You do realize you’re playing right into the hands of the theocrats here, right?

No. I’m not. YOU are and I’m trying to stop you but you can’t see it because your emotional response is getting in the way. This is why I thought we should have this discussion in public–your misunderstanding of the Constitution as a legal document is shared by an awful lot of people who think it means things it doesn’t mean.

[A]ll you’re doing is proving to me that the Constitution is wrong, as it is on so many other things. I only care about the Constitution up to a point. I care about right and wrong a lot more.

Bingo. You finally got it. That’s exactly the problem. The Constitution is wrong. The Founders didn’t go far enough because, as I said before (twice, I think), the Founders were all religious men–so was everyone in the country at the time–and it would never have occurred to them that banning religious expression on the part of government would be desirable, let alone necessary. I told you, the only way you can get the First Amendment to mean what you want it to mean is to amend it.

I went through all your other arguments in an attempt to explain what the Constitution actually says, and why it doesn’t say what you think it says. I started this because your statement that the unConstitutionality of the phrase was “stunningly obvious” betrayed a level of legal ignorance that is standard for “the vast majority of Americans”, as you put it. I’m afraid the legal fact is that if Newdow wins his argument that the phrase “under god” should be removed because it’s “offensive”, he may be enabling the very discrimination he thinks he’s preventing, and Scalia, for one, is smart enough to see that. (Fortunately, he has recused himself.)

Why is it important to understand this apparently arcane bit of Constitutional law? The Christian Reconstructionists and the rest of the theocratic movement, that’s why.

Next: How theocrats can use the Constitution against us.

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