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© St. Petersburg Times, published July 14, 2002
When the Pledge of Allegiance ruling was announced and then the tumult to follow, I had just left Saudi Arabia, a place where religion infuses every aspect of life.
Upon leaving the Islamic kingdom, I had been puzzling over a way around the religious trump card. How can Saudi Arabia move forward when every antiquated barrier to progress and equality is cast as an exhortation from God? How can moderate voices effect change when the answer to why, for example, a woman's courtroom testimony in Saudi Arabia is only worth half that of a man's, is: "It's written in the Koran." You can't have a debate when one side claims a divine dictate as the extent of its reasoning.
I was struggling to see where the cracks may emerge in the country's religious hardshell, feeling smugly superior that our Enlightenment-inspired society was grounded in rational judgment and not religious zeal, when the federal appeals court pledge ruling came down and our leaders went nuttier than Pat Robertson at a drag show.
The court decision made news around the world and so did our politicians' frenzied reactions: From our representatives on the Capitol steps belting out God Bless America for the television cameras to the lightning 99-0 vote in the Senate supporting the pledge. The displays of pandering to the religious majority suggested that our society is different from the Saudis' only by degree.
What was at issue before a three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals was whether the 1954 congressional insertion of the words "under God," into the Pledge of Allegiance turned it into an endorsement of religion. The court answered, quite rationally, "yes." Congress intended it to be an assertion of faith.
"The recitation that ours is a nation "under God' is not a mere acknowledgment that many Americans believe in a deity," wrote Judge Alfred Goodwin, a Nixon appointee. "Nor is it merely descriptive of the undeniable historical significance of religion in the founding of the Republic. . . . The text of the official pledge, codified in federal law, impermissibly takes a position with respect to the purely religious question of the existence and identity of God."
As the court goes on to point out, for the government to lead elementary school children in a profession that we are a nation "under God," is no different from asking them to declare that we are a nation "under Jesus" or "under Vishnu." It is a declaration of religious belief -- a belief in monotheism.
Our government is obliged to respect every individual's freedom of conscience and not take sides on religious questions. Therefore, it may not ask children to support a particular religious viewpoint even if it is wrapped around our common statement of support and pride for our country. Maybe, especially so.
The fact that an explosion of anger and political bluster followed the ruling, ensuring that it will never be enforced, doesn't detract from the inherent logic and correctness of the judgment. The phrase "under God" is either a profession of religious belief, which means it shouldn't be formally recited in schools, or it is so secularized and stripped of religious meaning through common usage that it has been rendered spiritually meaningless. In that case, what's the point?
That plain constitutional logic has eluded too many of our political leaders, though. Instead, they offer the other way -- the Saudi way -- where the state endorses religion and all pretense of church-state separation is washed away.
This is the Bush way.
Clearly, President Bush thinks the phrase "under God" should stay in the pledge not because it is innocuously inoffensive to atheists and polytheists, but because it is an affirmative declaration of America as God's protectorate. He was outraged by the ruling and said it shows the need for "common-sense judges who understand that our rights were derived from God. And those are the kinds of judges I intend to put on the bench."
The Saudis, too, believe their country and its laws, including the ones that oppress women, are God's special creation. Their judges are chosen the way Bush would choose his, based on their fealty to the divine.
When our judges become too intimidated or too pious to render decisions of stark truth on church-state matters, we will have adopted the Saudi way, where faith rules over reasoned judgment. That will be a sad day for our founders' vision and our nation -- under God or not.