Issue 87, Fall 2002
I for one am glad that the Pledge of Allegiance has been thrown into the ash heap by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. If I wanted to join a secret society replete with oaths, clubby handshakes and ceremony, I’d seek out the Shriners, Elks or some other club. I am an American. That means I cherish the ability to chart my own course.
Truth be told, we are not “one nation under God,” even though there is a strong subculture that wishes it were so. I recall once being scorned by then Judge William Sullivan, now Chief Justice Sullivan of the Connecticut Supreme Court. In an off-the-record sigh provoked by the obduracy of an adversary, I muttered “Jesus Christ.” The judge glared. “Don’t take the name of the Lord in vain in my court,” he hissed with the charm of Torquemada. I reminded the judge then, as I do now, that he is not my lord, but merely an itinerant Jewish preacher of historic interest.
I have long been offended by the Pledge of Allegiance for the simple fact that I do not know what it means. I went to school to learn, and came home with my head spinning. Where is God? What does it mean to be under Him, or Her, or Whatever the case may be? And why should the state require us to recite this quasi-prayer before beginning a day devoted, we hope, to learning of what the world consists?
No sooner had the 9th Circuit ruled than the Senate leaped into action, expressing by a vote of 99-0 its disagreement with the ruling. And religious zealots from Jerry Falwell on down the descending scale of rationality are promising bedlam until the ruling is reversed.
Millions of Americans are homeless. The Senate’s response? Nothing.
Corporations and accountants rape investors. The Senate’s response? Nothing.
Our air is unclean, our waters clogged with pollutants. The Senate’s response? Not much.
We are hated in much of the world for faults we care not to examine. The Senate’s response? Nothing.
But attack a trope, and, well, the heavens disgorge themselves with cheap sentiment. Why?
Because it is easy. Talking about God has the mysterious quality of sounding like sound and fury. In fact, such speech often signifies nothing. I have never once read a book, heard a debate or faced a decision in which the figure of God played any decisive role. Fanatics kill in God’s name; others defend in God’s name. God, in the meantime, keeps His preferences hidden from view.
Of course, Congress will pass a law reaffirming that God belongs in the pledge. And of course, Justice Antonin Scalia will write a scathing opinion, most likely in the majority this time, about the centrality of God in our lives. And of course, millions of Americans will be relieved when this little three-letter word is once again given pride of place in our schools.
And the politics of selecting federal judges will get even goofier. Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Mo., has already announced that the 9th Circuit decision “highlights what the fight over federal judges is all about.” Really, Senator. I guess anything sells in the Bible Belt; go ahead and pray while Rome burns. It beats fiddling.
How different are we than the mullahs whom we now seek to bomb? “There is no God but Allah, and Mohammed is his prophet,” they say. And we are one nation under God, with liberty and justice for all. Liberty and justice that is, for all those content to swim in the mainstream. I find it offensive to be required, or to have my children be required, to pay homage to invisible gods, phantoms and deities.
Norm Pattis is a name partner at New Haven, CT’s Williams and Pattis.