Here is a question for the San Francisco appeals court judges
who last week let stand a ruling, signed last summer by two of their
colleagues, that it is unconstitutional for students to say "under God" in
Dear Judges: If we are not under God, whom are we under? Who is
final authority for our law?
Alfred T. Goodwin is the judge who authored the court's opinion
striking down the practice in California's Elk Grove Unified School District
of saying the Pledge of Allegiance at the start of each day. Goodwin argued
that the ultimate authority over these schools is not God, but the
Constitution itself -- or, that is, the Constitution as interpreted by him
and Judge Stephen Reinhardt, who joined his decision, and the majority on
the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit who let it stand.
Goodwin argues that in the First Amendment -- which says,
"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion" -- the
Framers adopted for the U.S. government a doctrine of neutrality on the
question of whether there is a God.
It follows from this, even if we only discovered it last year,
that the United States has been an officially agnostic nation ever since
ratification of the Bill of Rights in 1791.
Because it invokes the words "under God," argues Goodwin, the
Pledge "is a profession of a religious belief, namely, a belief in
monotheism." Thus, it "impermissibly takes a position with respect to the
purely religious question of the existence and identity of God."
The most obvious problem with Goodwin's theory is that the
Americans who wrote the Constitution held the opposite view. They believed
not only in God but also in His authority over acts of government.
In "Seedtime of the Republic," historian Clinton Rossiter
chronicled the arguments of the Founding Fathers. "(I)n America," wrote
Rossiter, "all political theorists . . . assumed the applicability of 'the
Laws of Nature and Nature's God.'"
The "best known and most widely cited" definition of this, he
said, came from Sir William Blackstone's "Commentaries on the Laws of
England," published in 1765. Wrote Blackstone: "This law of nature, being
coeval with mankind and dictated by God himself, is of course superior in
obligation to any other. It is binding over all the globe in all countries,
and at all times: no human laws are of any validity, if contrary to this;
and such of them as are valid derive all their force, and all their
authority, mediately or immediately, from this original."
This conviction, of course, was echoed most famously in the
Declaration of Independence, but not only there.
Alexander Hamilton, a principal author of the Constitution, was
the greatest political rival of Thomas Jefferson, the principal author of
the Declaration of Independence. But Hamilton mirrored Jefferson when he
wrote: "The sacred rights of mankind are not to be rummaged for among old
parchments or musty records. They are written, as with a sunbeam, in the
whole volume of human nature, by the hand of Divinity itself, and can never
be erased or obscured by mortal power."
Robert L. Cord notes in "Separation of Church and State --
Historical Fact and Current Fiction" that the same Congress that drafted the
First Amendment also hired the first congressional chaplain. On the day
after the House approved the First Amendment, it asked President Washington
to "recommend to the people of the United States a day of public
thanksgiving and prayer, to be observed, by acknowledging, with grateful
hearts, the many signal favors of Almighty God, especially by affording them
an opportunity peaceably to establish a Constitution of Government for their
safety and happiness."
The Framers of the First Amendment thanked God for the
Constitution -- in an act of Congress.
The founding idea of our Republic is that our elected
representatives will seek, through constitutionally limited government, to
honor God's law in our own.
The Framers understood that if we refused to recognize God's
ultimate sovereignty over the state, we would be forced to recognize someone
else's. It might be a king or an army. Or, as we are learning today, it
might be a band of federal judges.