Friday, September 17, 2004

The folks at Powerline are very nice...and wrong

The folks at the Powerline Blog have been nice enough to mention my blog on their site. This marks the first time a major blog has linked to my own site. So thank you Powerline!

And what better way to repay them than to take issue with one of their posts?

Mr. Mirengoff remarks that no one at his daughter's school, Walt Whitman High School stands for the pledge. As a former student, I can vouch for the accuracy of this claim, but I would hardly ascribe the nefarious motives Mr. Mirengoff does.

Mr. Mirengoff says there are three reasons given by the students for this:
Three main reasons are cited. First, school starts early, and kids don't feel like standing up. Second, Bush is evil and the U.S. is pretty bad too. Third, with hardly anyone else standing, some feel uncomfortable doing so.

First of all, I would bet money that the first issue is far and away the most prevalent. We're teenagers. Ergo, we are lazy. That's just the way it is. And I'd bet a sizable portion of the people in groups two and three are really "ones" but think that laziness is a pretty poor reason and are embarrassed to say so.

For the second, I can't speak for most Whitman students. However, I do know that I have not stood for the pledge for a LONG time, dating well back into the Clinton admin. It has nothing to do with my (very real) dislike of Bush, because I think it is very important to distinguish between a nation and its government. I'll admit that at the start I didn't stand for the pledge because, yes, I was too tired. Now I don't recite the pledge on principle (more on that in a moment). I think that, to the extent that people are really not standing as protest against the administration, that's an unfortunate expression. However, if you believe that this administration has made a mockery of "liberty...for all" (Federal Marriage Amendment) and "justice for all" (Guantanomo Bay, Patriot Act, Hamdi/Padilla/Moussaoui), then I can see where they're coming from. I don't agree with their methodology (hell, I don't even agree with all they're protesting against), but not everyone has the type of time or energy to craft sophisticated and eloquent protests against authority. Sometimes, simplicity works.

The third I think is very interesting. I am very much inclined to believe that there is a sizable portion of the student body at Whitman who would stand but does not want to ostracize themselves by being "different" from the vast majority of the student population. Mr. Mirengoff is ABSOLUTELY right to point this phenomena out. Unfortunately, I doubt that he would be so quick to embrace the flipside of his argument, that in regions where the vast majority of students stand for the pledge, those who would prefer not to (let's assume out of true political or religious conviction) would feel pressured into standing. In the words of Lee v. Weisman they (the students who would stand but feel pressured not to, and those who wouldn't stand but feel pressured to) are being "psychologically coerced." The same people who are ready to jump down the throats of the liberal pinkos who are making young patriots uncomfortable about honoring their country are utterly dismissive of claims that people who object (religiously or otherwise) to the content of the pledge are "coerced" into participating in it by the patriotic majority. Mr. Mirengoff aptly though inadvertently illustrates the power of the "participate or protest" dilemma faced by so many children and teenagers every day. It just so happens that at Whitman, the "protesters" are in the majority. And the power of this psychological force, now recognized by Mr. Mirengoff, forms the linchpin of my opposition to the pledge in general. This type of coercion can be a force for good or for evil, and we'd all do well to remember that.

Now moving to my personal reasons for not saying the pledge. Even before the Newdow case, I was deeply troubled by the mention of "under God" in the pledge (indeed, I wrote my college essay and my national merit scholarship essay on it. Since I got into college and got the scholarship, I must be doing something right!). This is not because I'm an atheist. Indeed, I believe in God and consider myself a fairly religious person. Rather, its the implications of including "under God" that I find troubling.

First of all, I have always been confused as to the outcry of religious persons in America when it seemed that "Under God" would be taken out. They honestly seemed to view it as a threat to their faith. But what kind of faith requires government training wheels to be expressed? Maybe its because I'm Jewish and my people have had a lot of practice doing this, but it always seemed to me that the true test of faith was ones ability to hold it even when it wasn't part of the status quo. If your faith is so tenuous as to require governmental mandates to keep it afloat, then I think the problem is with our religious institutions, not with the government.

Second, people express religion in different ways. Religion is a deeply personal matter, and there is tremendous variance amongst Americans, even those who do believe in one God, on how to articulate their faith. Even within the same religious tradition there can be cleavages (for example, Jehovah's Witnesses and the Southern Baptists fall on the extreme opposite ends of the Pledge Case spectrum). So when the government proclaims one methodology of expressing faith to be paramount or proper, it has the effect of commoditizing religion, of turning it into a "one size fits all" proposition. I think that is tremendously patronizing of the deep personal and spiritual bound that religion represents, and I think that's what Justice Hugo Black meant when he said that "a union of government and religion tends to destroy government and to degrade religion. The history of governmentally established religion, both in England and in this country...showed that many people had lost their respect for any religion that had relied upon the support of government to spread its faith. The Establishment Clause thus stands as an expression of principle on the part of the Founders of our Constitution that religion is too personal, too sacred, too holy, to permit its 'unhallowed perversion' by a civil magistrate." (Engel v. Vitale, 370 US 421, 431)

At root, I'm going to believe in God because I believe in God, not because my government tells me to. And I'm certainly not going to express my faith in terms of federally codified norms. That's not a celebration of religion, that's a mockery of it.


Anonymous said...

Enjoyed your post.

you wrote:
"However, if you believe that this administration has made a mockery of "liberty...for all" (Federal Marriage Amendment) and "justice for all" (Guantanomo Bay, Patriot Act, Hamdi/Padilla/Moussaoui), then I can see where they're coming from."

It seems that you are confusing "saying a pledge" (stating your beliefs in the abstract), and "saying facts" (reporting on the current state of affairs). If you were never allowed to say what you believed in until it was universally true, well, you wouldn't have much to say. Even if Kerry gets elected. :)

If your only true objection to the pledge is the inclusion of "Under God," may I suggest that you simply not say that portion you disagree with.

Best Regards,
N. G. Zax

Unknown said...

I'm a bit older than you and in my high school years I protested the Viet Nam war. However, I still stood and proudly recited the pledge of allegiance. I was taught, and still believe, that pledging my allegiance to *America* does not require that I approve of everything the government of America does. Our government - past, present, or future - is clearly not the sum total of America. I pledged to what America stands for on principle beyond the idiosyncrasies of particular governmental actions - for better and for worse if you will. If people are unwilling to pledge allegiance to the principles that are at the heart of America, then where does their allegiance lie? Reciting the pledge is not approval of everything the government does - however not reciting the pledge is failure to recognize and publically affirm what America is truly about.

Regarding "under God". I personally don't think it needs to be in the pledge, however it does reflect a significant segment of history and tradition within the United States, and is therefore a subject for reasoned debate. I believe there is need for a national discussion to frame the argument accurately - then proceed from debate to action as appropriate.

I infer from your comments that your belief that "under God" should be removed is based upon your concern for its affect on America, not on its effect on your religion and/or your beliefs. There is nothing to indicate that the other side feels any different relative to the scope of effect. So I take issue with your characterization of the reaction to Newdow by some on the other side of the argument. "First of all, I have always been confused as to the outcry of religious persons in America when it seemed that "Under God" would be taken out. They honestly seemed to view it as a threat to their faith." This is an overly simple mischaracterization that begs the actual, and difficult issues. I would characterize it this way - paraphrasing you: 'They honestly seemed to view it as a threat to their country'. One word makes reframes the discussion entirely. Those "religious persons" earnestly believe that removing "under God" will degrade America. Trying to minimize their perspective to that of believing it is "a threat to their faith", is missing the issue and fails to address just why this is such a difficult issue for America to resolve.

Matt Monell said...


I would like to point out that the Pledge of Allegiance is a commitment to an ideal, not a recitation on the state of the union. Each of us should aspire to the greater good as individuals, families, communities, and as a nation. The Pledge reinforces that commitment, and it is entirely appropriate to stand and recite it everyday to recommit to those ideals.

The “Under God” portion, although added after the Pledge was originally adopted, is also an attempt to honor a widely held belief that a “higher being” exists. Currently, human beings cannot determine unequivocally whether or not God exists except through faith. Faith has been a significant motivator for mankind for ages, and it was the pursuit of the right to practice ones faith that led to a number of people coming to the United States in the first place. I see no harm in acknowledging His presence in a Pledge, whether in the Pledge of Allegiance, oath of office, or in a court of law. If the concept of a higher being offends someone, then I believe they have the right to be silent during that brief segment.

I find it humorous that you find that the reward you earned from an essay in which your argument against the phrase “Under God” was validation of your argument. I believe, based on the eloquence of your column, that it was your persuasive powers, and use of language that was rewarded not the merit of your argument. However given the liberal nature of our institutes of higher learning perhaps you just knew your audience.