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Pledge Part Three – Bad

June 27th, 2002 · No Comments

Pledge Part Three – Bad Objections

This issue seems to have generated quite a few strong feelings. There are a few objections that seem to crop up again and again, and so instead of cluttering the comment sections of a thousand blogs, perhaps I should collect some of them here, with responses.

  • But, nobody’s *forced* to say the pledge! So everything’s OK. — Forcing people to declare a religious belief is obviously sufficient to invalidate a statute on First Amendment grounds. It is not necessary. The state could fund any number of religious messages and activities without coercing anyone (except the taxpayers, if you count that as coercion), and still clearly be in violation. Does anyone think that a big marble statue of Jesus constructed with federal funds in the middle of the D.C. mall would pass muster, whether or not people were forced to go look at it?
  • What are you gonna do next, invalidate the Declaration of Independence and America the Beautiful? — The 9th circuit’s decision makes very clear that their objection hinges on what we might call the “normative context” of the pledge recitation. Nothing in the decision indicates that any mention of God per se must be purged from the public sphere. There is a world of difference between reading about the Declaration, or taking a class on the history of theology, which are both descriptive contexts, and hearing an endorsement from the mouths of government representatives — in their function as government representatives — of a religiously charged view of what it is to be a good American. If schools started having kids chant “We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights” every morning, I would object to that as well. The objectionable thing is not the presence of the terms, but the state endorsement. There are other examples, such as the invocation which opens Supreme Court hearings. I think that should be done away with as well. Pointing out that a practice is common doesn’t make it right.
  • These are instances of “ceremonial deism,” which consecrate public events, but have lost their religious content by dint of rote repetition. — In some sense, this makes the religious message attached all the more dangerous. The fact that, as some have observed, kids mouth the words of the pledge with very little contemplation of the words, is no argument for treating them as inoccuous. Rather, it is an indication that the state endorsement of the link between faith and patriotism is effectively bypassing conscious scrutiny, and becoming subliminal. Rote repetition may cause people to stop thinking about the fact that they’re saying “God” left and right; it does not strip away the term’s religious significance.
  • Isn’t this just whining? There’s no right not to be offended by other people’s religious views. — Correct. Being offended by something a government official says is no argument against it. This is a red herring. But if the reason people are offended is that the state, by its codification in a public ritual of a religious conception of patriotism, fails to exhibit the neutrality between monotheistic, polytheistic, and atheistic citizens that a liberal state must, then it is that failure, and not the offense it provokes, that ground the objection. This argument is acutally a disingenuous way of making it seem as though it’s opponents of the religious component of the pledge who are somehow trying to “oppress” the religious. But this is specious: it is not the view itself, but the fact that the state, which purports to speak for all citizens, is expressing it that offends.
  • The pledge has a perfectly secular purpose, encouraging national unity, which means it passes prong one of the Lemon Test. — Putting aside the fact that that’s a crappy secular purpose, examination of the 9th circuit’s decision makes clear that the 1954 amendment to the pledge, which added the words “under god” is being challenged, not the pledge as a whole. A statute creating a pledge of allegiance may plausibly be said to have that secular purpose. A separate statute which just adds a religious component clearly does not.

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