The U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals' Feb. 28 decision reaffirming that the Pledge of Allegiance is unconstitutional in public schools has brought out the worst in some of America's politicians and Religious Right leaders.
Lapsing into wild-eyed hysteria, William Donohue of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights called for impeaching the judges who backed the ruling and demanded that public school teachers openly disobey it.
House Majority Leader Tom DeLay took a different approach, calling on Congress to withdraw the Pledge from the jurisdiction of the federal courts. Another House member, Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho) offered a third option, opining that the 9th Circuit Court should be broken up, presumably so that President George W. Bush can stack it with right-wing judicial activists who have no use for church-state separation.
U.S. Rep. Ernest Istook (R-Okla.) said the ruling is proof that Congress must pass his constitutional amendment that would not only sanction "under God" in the Pledge, but also bless official school prayer and government displays of the Ten Commandments.
Religious Right groups, meanwhile, are using the Pledge decision to raise money and whip up public hostility toward the separation of church and state.
All of this activity flies in the face of calm analysis. Until 1954, the Pledge of Allegiance was a simple patriotic exercise devoid of religious content. In that year, Congress, in a burst of McCarthyite fervor against "godless communism," slipped the words "under God" into the Pledge. Thus a patriotic exercise became a theological affirmation, as much a confession of faith as an expression of devotion to country.
This year marks the 400th anniversary of the birth of Roger Williams, an early pioneer for religious liberty and church-state separation. Williams would understand why it's wrong for the state to ask anyone to recite religious oaths.
Williams had some personal experience with this issue. In 1635, Massachusetts' government leaders tried to force all men over the age of 16 to swear an oath to the king ending in "So help me, God."
That bothered Williams. He believed the government had no business compelling anyone to believe certain things about religion.
"A magistrate ought not to tender an oath to an unregenerate man," he said. To do so would force the non-believer "to take the name of God in vain."
Williams argued so forcefully about the issue that he stretched the patience of Massachusetts' leaders of church and state. They banished him from the Bay Colony. Williams fled to the wilderness, purchased some land from the natives and founded Rhode Island as a haven for persons of all religious beliefs and none.
Why was Williams so adamant over this issue? Perhaps because he knew something that a lot of political leaders have lost sight of today: Religion is not a tool to be used to achieve the whims of the state. A devout Christian, Williams would today be considered something of a fundamentalist. He took religion seriously; he had no desire to see it twisted and manipulated by the government to achieve some end that, at the time, seemed worthwhile.
Williams knew that if the state could force a person to affirm belief in God, it could also force a person to believe in a certain mode of faith or worship in a particular way. The state had the power to do this in Williams' day, and he had seen the result up close: centuries of bloody war and persecution.
Government-based compulsory religion, Williams believed, was an affront to God. "The civil sword may make a nation of hypocrites and anti-Christians, but not one Christian," he once observed.
Since the latest Pledge ruling was handed down, we've heard lots of arguments for why the decision should be overturned. Some have said that the reference to God is fleeting and incidental. It really doesn't count. It's "ceremonial deism."
This is a curious argument. To accept it, we would have to believe that when Congress and President Dwight D. Eisenhower approved the action in 1954, they really didn't mean it. They did not intend to make a religious statement or that somehow, over time, the religious significance of the statement has faded away.
But they did mean it. The record of their deliberations proves that. They acted with religious purpose. They sought to link religion and government, God and patriotism. When members of Congress put "under God" into the Pledge, they made the statement that belief in God is to be preferred, that it is expected, that it is normal, right and good. They declared that the government indeed favors that view.
To that many Americans might say, "So what's the big deal?" Williams would know why it's a big deal. And if he were alive today, he would boldly and proudly rebuke the loudmouths and peddlers of pious platitudes among the Religious Right. He'd give it to them like they never heard it.
Emotion is running high over the Pledge issue, and reason has been replaced with politically motivated fulminations and fear mongering. At times like this, our liberties are at their most peril. We don't have Roger Williams with us today, so you and I must stand up and be counted instead.