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Jewish World Review
April 5, 2010
/ 21 Nissan 5770
One nation, still under . . .
Out of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco comes the latest decision in the never-ending tussle over religion, the Constitution, church-and-state and all that.
The 2-to-1 decision found the Pledge of Allegiance constitutionally kosher, even though it contains the words "under G0d." The only thing surprising about the decision is that it should have come out of the Ninth Circuit, for in the past that court has been a refuge and a sanctuary for those who want to scrub American law of any references to the holy.
But this time the court endorsed G0d 2 to 1, which must be a comfort to the Almighty.
Religion, the majority opinion concluded, has its secular uses: "The Pledge of Allegiance serves to unite our vast nation through the proud recitation of some of the ideals upon which our Republic was founded."
The phrase about this republic being under G0d was actually inserted during the Cold War, when Americans wanted to distinguish this republic from G0dless Communism an understandable impulse. Customary ceremonies do change with the felt needs of the times, though they shouldn't be changed for light and transient reasons or they will cease to be customs.
Lest we forget, the original language of the Pledge had its political purposes, too, having been written with a view to uniting this "one nation indivisible" while the passions of the Civil War still lingered, and a sizable number of the unreconstructed were still attached to the idea of a divisible Union, or at least to the sacrifices their forbears had made for it.
Nowadays most of us, like General Grant after The War, would just say, "Let us have peace." Which may be the essential message of this latest appellate decision. The country ought to be able to abide some G0d talk in the schools, as surely as we abide chaplains in the armed forces, and religious references in state papers from the Declaration of Independence to the now customary "Thank you, and G0d Bless America" with which presidents end their speeches.
Sometimes the references to the Divine in presidential speeches are more than passing; they're essential, as in Washington's Farewell Address and Lincoln's positively biblical Second Inaugural, the greatest of inaugural addresses. That speech and benediction could have come straight from the King James Version, and much of it did.
So long as little children are not forced to recite the Pledge, its words serve their civil purpose, G0d forgive us. Yes, there is something off-putting about the instrumental use of religion ("the family that prays together stays together") but that doesn't mean the end isn't worth achieving.
Nor is this majority opinion wrong in recognizing the central place of religious faith in this republic. It is church and state that need to remain separate in the American scheme of things; it would be impossible to separate religion and state in the dense fabric of American society. To quote John Adams, "Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other."
The best editorial commentary on all such decisions upholding the secular uses of faith, or what has come to be known as civil religion, may have been offered by Gibbon in his "Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire," for the parallels between that republic-and-empire and our own remain strong:
"The various modes of worship which prevailed in the Roman world were all considered by the people as equally true; by the philosopher as equally false; and by the magistrate as equally useful. And thus toleration produced not only mutual indulgence, but even religious concord."
You can feel the sense of unity at any presidential inauguration or community-wide Thanksgiving service. No dummies, the Romans. Which may be why they lasted so long. There's a lesson here that even the Ninth Circuit may have learned: Toleration pays. Even toleration of religion.
Of course there will always be those so pure of heart that is, fanatics that they can't tolerate the sight and sound of another's faith in the public square. Much like the plaintiff in this case. But if the devout in America have finally come to tolerating, even savoring, others' expression of faith in public ceremonies, even at the no small risk of profanation, then surely atheists, the latest of America's fighting faiths, can tolerate one in the Pledge of Allegiance.
Paul Greenberg Archives
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