Pledge furor is evidence of hostility to religion

John Leo

7/1/2002 12:00:00 AM - John Leo
By revealing so clearly the foam-at-the-mouth hostility to religion that grips our elites, the 9th Circuit's "under God" decision is proving a Godsend, although the two hapless judges in the majority would probably insist that we refer to it simply as a "send."

The decision was such a howler that even many of those whose mouths usually foam decided to cringe instead. Not one U.S. senator could be found to support the ruling. Tom Daschle announced it was "nuts." Even the hyper-separationist New York Times said it was "rigid." This is like Greenpeace coming out in favor of slaughtering more whales. After this reaction, the court put its decision on hold. The case may be reassessed by the same three judges or by an ll-judge panel.

Much of the reaction comes from narrow political calculation. The court ruling obviously could help Republican candidates and judicial nominees. This is especially so since it recalls the political hay that the first George Bush made in 1988 by attacking Michael Dukakis' card-carrying ACLU membership. At the white-hot center of the ACLU flap were the words "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance.

Republicans created an explosive issue by tying Dukakis to ACLU National Policy Number 84: "The insertion of the words 'under God' is unconstitutional and should be forbidden." The Democrats and the Washington press corps had no clue that the issue was a potent one. This time around they will get it. To religious conservatives, "under God" is a crucial symbol, the last religious reference left in the schools since the separationist makeover of education.

The new ruling would ban the Pledge of Allegiance in public schools of nine West Coast states because two of the three federal appeal court judges thought the phrase "under God" was a dangerous endorsement of monotheism. But "under God" is in line with "In God We Trust" on currency, "God save this honorable court" at the Supreme Court, and annual Thanksgiving messages from the president. The "God" in these messages is viewed by different people in different ways. Some see it as a heartfelt reference to a living deity. To others it is a vague expression of "ceremonial deism" or even a content-free catch-phrase, as in "God bless you" after a sneeze.

In none of these versions is there the remotest danger that a religion is being established. The majority argued that "under God' is the equivalent of saying that America is "under Jesus," "under Vishnu" or "under Zeus." But unless you are writing a comic skit for Monty Python, mentioning God in the schools is not comparable to dedicating the class to Zeus or Vishnu.

The two-man majority also made the mistake of employing the hurt-feelings argument. The "under God" phrase allegedly made the young daughter of the plaintiff uncomfortable. Though she did not have to recite the pledge herself (the Supreme Court settled that issue long ago), she had to suffer the alleged ordeal of hearing other children recite it. Judge Ferdinand Fernandez disposed of this pop-therapy concern nicely: "Some people may not feel good about hearing the phrases recited in their presence, but then others might not feel good if they are omitted." That's the problem with feelings. Since everybody has them, they can't be much of a clinching argument.

The court ruling opens the door to a serious discussion of the aggressive ideological campaign against religion. As Christopher Lasch wrote in "The Revolt of the Elites," the elites' attitudes toward religion "range from indifference to active hostility," which is not much of a gamut. While using high-road rhetoric (safeguarding church-state separation allows all faiths to flourish, etc.) the elites have pursued low-road policies, relentlessly working to drive religion from the public square.

History textbooks have been scrubbed clean of religious references and holidays scrubbed of all religious references and symbols. Some intellectuals now contend that arguments by religious people should be out of bounds in public debate, unless, of course, they agree with the elites.

In schools the anti-religion campaign is often hysterical. When schoolchildren are invited to write about any historical figure, this usually means they can pick Stalin or Jeffrey Dahmer, but not Jesus or Luther, because religion is reflexively considered dangerous in schools and loathsome historical villains aren't. Similarly a moment of silence in the schools is wildly controversial because some children might use it to pray silently on public property. Oh, the horror. The overall message is that religion is backward, dangerous and toxic. That's why we have decisions like the one from the 9th Circuit.