Thank God for Michael Newdow.
While he would probably resent having his name invoked in prayer – Newdow, that is, not God – I can’t help but praise the Almighty Creator for giving us this all-petty lawyer, the Sacramento atheist hellbent on purging the words “under God” from the Pledge of Allegiance.
Newdow is a powerful antidote to a media culture that delights in paying undue attention to the religiously ridiculous, be it Pat Robertson’s absurd pronouncements or screwball ministers who decree that Hurricane Katrina was divine punishment for one sin or another. With Newdow re-winning his anti-Pledge case in a federal court last month , and with his resurrected status as talk-show celebrity, we are all reminded that believers have no monopoly on poor taste – or intolerance.
Like the American Civil Liberties Union, Newdow can’t stand the sight of others’ professing beliefs that he rejects – thus his crusade to purge every mention of the G-word or any hint of America’s religious heritage in public life, based on the spurious claim that even the slightest allusion to a deity violates the Constitution.
But far from prohibiting any public expression of religious sentiment, the Constitution bars only laws “respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” And it’s hard to see how school kids’ reciting the Pledge would fit the bill.
The Pledge isn’t a prayer or a religious creed. It’s a statement of loyalty to country, not to any faith. And its nonsectarian, third-person reference to God is a tribute to the nation’s founding ideals, not a consecration to any of the nation’s countless religions – most of which lay claim to the word “god” in one form or another.
What’s more, no one is forced to say all of the Pledge or even part of it. The atheist who bristles at the mention of God need not participate.
After all, religious believers make similar compromises with the secular culture all the time.
In public schools, it’s not uncommon for Jehovah’s Witnesses to sit out classroom parties. Jews may send their kids to school with bagged lunches rather than rely on the non-Kosher cafeteria. Fasting Muslim students will quietly sit out lunchtime altogether. Some Christian parents take their kids out of the annual Halloween costume parade. Others skip sex-ed programs that contradict the moral teachings of their faiths.
This is what it means to be tolerant in a pluralistic society – realizing that one’s own beliefs might not always square with those of everyone else, and accepting that difference gracefully. It’s a far cry from trying to get a judge to impose one’s own preferences on society at large.
Newdow and the ACLU would have us believe that any expression of faith, no matter how benign or nonsectarian, is a violation of civil rights that puts us just one step away from the next Inquisition. But public expressions of faith are so prevalent in this country that they appear on our currency, Congress and the Supreme Court begin each session with an invocation, and presidents of both parties unabashedly end their addresses with “God bless America.”
How is it, then, that America has consistently been the model of religious pluralism and tolerance for people of all faiths, and, for that matter, no faith at all?
Maybe it has something to do with being a nation “under God.”
Congress inserted those two words into the Pledge at the height of the Cold War in 1954 – not, as some suggest, to assuage a mindless McCarthyite fervor, but to draw a key distinction between American democracy and Soviet totalitarianism: In America, our rights come from God, not the state. Thus, the state cannot take them away.
This distinction is explicit in the Declaration of Independence: “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, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
America has faithfully defended freedom of religion for 200 years – in no small part because doing so has been, well, an article of faith. God gave man the free will to worship or reject God as man sees fit. In the religiously influenced American tradition, that’s a right government can’t revoke.
Communism, of course, took a rather different view, and the results speak for themselves. It’s impossible to imagine a taller wall between church and state than the one that Marx erected, but religious freedom was nonexistent in the old Soviet Union, as it is today in Communist China.
The American model of a secular government founded on explicitly Judeo-Christian ideals has better protected religious freedom than most any other model ever tried in the world. And that is something for which all of us, even Michael Newdow, can thank God.