April 4, 2004
Clergy vs. the Pledge of Allegiance
You know by now about Michael Newdow, the atheist who issued the legal challenge to the Elk Grove Unified School District, suing to have the words “under God” stricken from the Pledge of Allegiance. You may know that Newdow argued his own case before the Supreme Court of the United States, and apparently did a damn fine job of it.
But that may not even be the most compelling or striking thing about this case. Check out this spectacular amicus brief filed by 32 clergy of various denominations, arguing for Michael Newdow.
Their argument hasn’t been entirely unmade by others in the debate over those two words, but nowhere else have I seen it made so forcefully. Part of the school district’s argument in this case, and the foundation of the Justices’ arguments so far, has been the idea that “under God” is a little bit of “ceremonial deism,” that it doesn’t actually mean anything, it’s just a little nod to history and tradition.
The clergy say that if that’s true, if “under God” has no meaning, then school districts are instructing children to take the Lord’s name in vain, to violate the Sixth Commandment. It cheapens both patriotism and religion, they argue.
And the brief is not without its healthy share of snark. Marvel at the snark-quotes in this passage:
The United States is creative but unpersuasive in its efforts to imagine other possible meanings for the religious affirmation in the Pledge. It says the Pledge merely “acknowledges” the “historical” and “demographic” facts that the Nation was founded by individuals who believed in God and that most Americans still believe in God. … But that is plainly not what the Pledge says. Teachers might easily ask children to pledge allegiance to “one Nation, most of whose citizens believe in God,” or to “one Nation, founded by a generation that mostly believed in God.”
That’s some sass.
Anyway, see Leon Wieseltier’s New Republic essay on the topic for more.