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UNDER GOD

John Chuckman

Senator Thomas Daschle, in a heroic moment of striking a blow for freedom, called a federal appeal court’s ruling that the words “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance are unconstitutional “just nuts.” His reaction undoubtedly reflects the same bedrock, tribune-of-the-people qualities that have made him such a mighty guardian against the dangerous excesses of Mr. Bush.

We all heard Sen. Daschle speak out against torture and killing of prisoners, the bombing of civilians, and improper arrests, didn’t we? Oh well, maybe not, but on this life-and-death issue we know he is on the side of the angels. After all, that redoubtable spokesman for freedom’s interests, Ari Fleischer, assured us, while his boss dozed off a lunch-time virgin Bloody Mary in the family quarters of the White House, that the president thinks the ruling “ridiculous.”

How can you go wrong with endorsements like that? And they were buttressed by the brave defenders of the right of those who already own most of America to own its elections too, the United States Senate, with a triumphant resolution in support of the pledge as worded (99/nil). My, Americans must feel proud of leaders endowed with such remarkable thoughtfulness and fortitude.

Of course, the only thing that truly is ridiculous here, apart from the entire U.S. Senate now wasting time on this, is the fact that the words, “under God,” ever were added in the first place. They were the product of the swell days of malts in the soda shop, fallout shelters, and an American government planning atomic pre-emptive strikes on the U.S.S.R. Funny, how that last idea has gained a new currency under Bush.

This religious profession, and there is no other expression for the words, represents the same pandering to prejudice as the 487 or so times the Congress has voted for a flag-desecration amendment to the Constitution, something that even a mail-order law student knows is a wretched idea. At least the flag amendments stood no chance of becoming law with the immense effort required to alter the American Constitution. But the pledge-phrase is something people have had to endure since 1954.

Contrary to the assertion that the pledge is a voluntary act, it effectively is not. When school classrooms and assemblies are asked to rise and recite the words, it is a very rare individual indeed who would ignore the immense social pressure involved to resist. He or she might not actually say the words, but you can be sure they are standing with hand to heart to avoid a trip to the principal’s office and a lot of sneers in the playground.

There is a rumor that in some parts of the South and the Midwest, there is a movement to bring back the old way of saying the pledge, with arm extended in Nazi-like salute, but I can’t confirm the truth of this, although it would clearly be in the spirit of cramming religious beliefs down other peoples’ throats.

The use of social pressure in this fashion is nothing less than a favored technique of tyranny. And that is why America’s Puritans are so attached to such practices. After all, they know they are right and everyone else is wrong – a characteristic belief of those with a proclivity to tyranny. There’s likely considerable dissatisfaction that the words aren’t “under Jesus,” but that fact serves to demonstrates to the world that the spirit of compromise isn’t totally dead in America.

Forgotten utterly are the hard-fought battles for true religious freedom in the 18th century. The skeptic Jefferson, a strong believer in religious tolerance and freedom (even though he did slip a mite on human freedom), worked with people like the Baptists in Virginia to achieve a new degree of religious freedom. Before his efforts, Baptists and others had to pay taxes for the established church, regardless of whether they ever attended.

It is actually difficult to understand why any religious person would want the government’s imprimatur on any matter touching religion. Faith is one of those precious, private, personal things that are better left untouched by government. No one gains from officially-endorsed religious expressions. Indeed, we are only diminished by them. They weaken the strength of a society by attempting to exclude or limit or define what only an individual’s conscience may properly judge.

Some will say the phrase “under God” is universal with no connotations of sect or specific religion. Well, that really isn’t true. As the judge writing the decision so correctly observed, the phrase is equivalent to “under Vishnu,” “under Zeus,” or “under no god.” Any of these would instantly rankle the sensibilities of many Christians and Jews.

And what is gained by having such a religious bromide attached to a patriotic profession? It clearly offends some people, but does it truly please anyone? It reminds me of the battle to have prayers in American public schools. As though the poor public schools didn’t already have enough problems to deal with. And as though any student who felt so inclined couldn’t quietly pray at any time in any place.

But there was a huge, time-consuming debate simply because some people were determined to push their beliefs into the faces of others. The compromise was offered of a “moment of silence,” again something that could please almost no one and prove irritating to many.

Oh, how much better off everyone would be if religion were left where it properly belongs, to the houses of worship and to the individual’s private thoughts.

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