Perhaps this is the wrong moment to bring up the Pledge of Allegiance.
It was the comic curmudgeon Lewis Black who dryly suggested that the perennial debate about whether the words “under God” violate the separation of church and state is the sort of intellectual exercise that ought to be reserved strictly for times when not much else is going on in the news—that is, when there is nothing more compelling for us to argue about.
At present, the prospect of a sort-of war in Syria has more or less taken care of that.
Yet I must insist that one direct one’s attention towards the Pledge all the same, for the issue of constitutionality presented itself this past weekend in a manner that, against all probability, allows us to think about it in a fresh and interesting way.
Up until now, the general thrust of the Pledge of Allegiance debate has been simple enough. In one corner is the view that by declaring the United States “one nation under God,” the U.S. government is necessarily taking a position on a religious matter, which the First Amendment plainly forbids it from doing in the stipulation that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.”
From the other corner comes the rebuke that “under God” is a purposefully vague and general assertion that favors no particular God over any other, and therefore no religion over any other, and thus does not infringe upon any individual’s right to believe whatever he or she likes.
What is more, while the Pledge is recited daily in most public schools across America, the practice today is optional rather than compulsory, and thus no one can decently claim that he or she is being “forced” to declare religious adherence. The tradition exists for those who wish to participate; those who don’t may simply avert their eyes, ears and throat.
My own view has been that “under God” does indeed constitute state-sponsored religion—atheists, who do not believe in a God for America to be under, are excluded by definition—but also that the non-compulsory nature of the Pledge renders the whole issue fairly trivial.
The new approach to this question, which stems from a lawsuit by a family in Massachusetts, insists that the above is not quite good enough.
The plaintiffs in the case, who wish to strike the words “under God” from the Pledge, allege the phrase to be a violation of the Equal Rights Amendment of the Massachusetts Constitution—a noteworthy legal position to strike, as most anti-Pledge cases hinge instead on the separation of church and state.
As currently worded, said the plaintiffs’ representative David Niose, the Pledge “validates believers as good patriots and it invalidates atheists as non-believers at best and unpatriotic at worst.”
In other words, the point isn’t whether reciting the Pledge in school is optional. The point is that it exists, period, and with the official blessing of the U.S. government. Floating about in its present and exclusive form, the Pledge predisposes people to accept it and assumes that they will. It may not explicitly hold those who object to its content in contempt, but it very much leads the witness in a manner that is rather suspect in a free and open society.
Imagine, if you will, that instead of the Pledge, every American public school began the day with an eloquently-worded, government-sponsored salute to the National Football League.
After all, football is unquestionably America’s most popular sport; it pumps billions of dollars into the U.S. economy every year; and its main event, the Super Bowl, brings Americans together in excitement and revelry like few other occasions on the cultural calendar do.
What could be the harm in making recognition of such a wholly American tradition official? Provided that such a gesture did not favor one NFL team over another and that students who wished to abstain could do so, who could possibly object?
To this airtight logic, one might nonetheless inquire: Why exactly is it the business of government to express an opinion about the worthiness of a particular sport, or about sports in general? What is the practical effect of such an action, other than to make those heretics who do not agree that the NFL is an admirable enterprise feel as if their own opinion is morally inferior to everyone else’s?
If and once one concludes that the state has neither the duty nor the competence to issue proclamations on matters of sport, then one has no choice but to apply even greater scrutiny to instances of the state doing the same on matters of God.