Saturday, May 17, 2014

158.4 - Outrage of the Week: atheists don't count - again

Outrage of the Week: atheists don't count - again

Now it's time for one of our regular weekly features, the Outrage of the Week.

Look, I didn't mean to be talking about this topic again; I really didn't. As I've said before, it's not high on my list of personal social and political priorities. But it keeps coming up in one form or another.

This week, the source of the outrage is the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts, which ruled on May 9 that reciting the Pledge of Allegiance in public schools does not violate the rights of atheists, despite containing the words "under God."

The case arose in 2010 when an atheist family in Acton,  Massachusetts, filed a suit asserting that the the daily recitation of the pledge in classrooms violated the First Amendment rights of their three children.

The real outrage here is not so much the decision itself; the Court could for example have said something like, "yes, it's a violation but it's so minor that it really doesn't rise to the level of Constitutional concern." A decision like that, well, I would have disagreed with it, I would have been disappointed, but it wouldn't have seemed like such a big deal to me.

No, the outrage is the logic the court used in reaching its decision. It said, quoting,
Although the words "under God" undeniably have a religious tinge, courts have concluded that the pledge, notwithstanding its reference to God, is a fundamentally patriotic exercise, not a religious one.
That is, the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts has declared that the phrase "under god" actually has nothing to do with religion except to have a "religious tinge" - in the same way, I expect, that the phrase "out of touch, disconnected, historically-ignorant, black-robed jackasses" has an "uncomplimentary tinge."

Of course "under God" is a religious expression! That was the purpose of including it! A very quick history:

The original Pledge of Allegiance was written in August 1892 by a Baptist minister and socialist by the name of Francis Bellamy. It was published the following month in a popular magazine called The Youth's Companion and read, in full:
I pledge allegiance to my Flag and the Republic for which it stands, one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.
It was amended to say "and to the republic" the following month. One interesting thing is that Bellamy considered including the word "equality" in his pledge but didn't because he knew that the state superintendents of education he worked with in promoting the pledge were opposed to equality for women and African-Americans.

The next change came in 1923 when the National Flag Conference changed the words "my Flag" to "the Flag of the United States of America," a change Bellamy opposed to no avail. Congress officially recognized the Pledge of Allegiance in 1942.

The change we're concerned about, though, did not come until 1954. That is when the phrase "under God" was added by Congress to the official wording. The idea had been kicking around for two or three years, but in February 1954, one Rev. George Docherty preached a sermon attended by President Eisenhower in which he said that "there was something missing in the pledge ... the characteristic and definitive factor in the American way of life," because, he said, lacking any mention of God, "I could hear little Muscovites repeat a similar pledge to their hammer-and-sickle flag in Moscow."

When Eisenhower enthusiastically endorsed the sermon, that provided the political impetus to pass the change. On signing the bill, Eisenhower said:
From this day forward, the millions of our school children will daily proclaim in every city and town, every village and rural school house, the dedication of our nation and our people to the Almighty.

In this way we are reaffirming the transcendence of religious faith in America's heritage and future; in this way we shall constantly strengthen those spiritual weapons which forever will be our country's most powerful resource in peace and war.
That is, the addition of the phrase "under God" was done avowedly and consciously to contrast the supposedly "religious" United States with the supposedly "atheistic" Soviet Union.

Oh and by the way, what group initiated the campaign, which group spearheaded the campaign for the change and was subsequently recognized by the American Legion as having done so? The Knights of Columbus.

But oh no, "under God" has nothing to do with religion. Nothing at all. It's merely a "patriotic exercise."

Which if anything makes it worse! Because the clear meaning of that, the undeniable meaning of that, the only rational interpretation of that, is that part of being "patriotic" is believing in God - so if you don't believe in God, you can't be patriotic, you can't be truly American. You are always, in some way, "other."

And you also have to remember, this dismissal, this limitation on who gets to be a true American, who gets to be truly part of "us," does not apply just to atheists - it would also apply to any religion which is non-theistic. It would apply to Buddhists. It would apply to Jainists. It would apply to some Hindus. It would apply to animists, to members of the Ethical Culture movement, to followers of some Native American beliefs, even, potentially, to agnostics. If "under God" as part of the Pledge of Allegiance is truly nothing other than a "patriotic exercise," if declaring yourself and your country to be "under God" is part of what it means to be patriotic, none of those people can be said to be truly American, truly part of the American community.

If that notion sounds absurd, and it is, then "under God" is what is plainly is: a declaration of religious conviction and a violation of the rights of those expected to recite it.

And that, particularly the court's culturally-blinkered denial of it, is an outrage.

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