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More Dancing in the Dark

June 20, 2004

The Supreme Court’s evasive non-ruling on whether the phrase “under God” belongs in the Pledge of Allegiance is not playing well across the country. The most common complaint seems to be that the court “punted,” a polite way of saying that the justices did not want to do their job by ruling on the substance of the issue.

Call me a cynic, but I think the liberals on the court didn’t want to cause an uproar that would help Republicans in an election year. Better to come up with a soothing but temporary political decision — restoring “under God” for now while clearly inviting a future challenge that the court will be only too happy to grant once the political coast is clear. We deserve a better, more honest Supreme Court.

Like many lawyers, Jonathan Turley, of George Washington University Law School, was not impressed by the fig leaf chosen by the court: that the California atheist who brought the challenge was not the custodial parent of the child reciting the pledge and therefore lacked standing to bring suit. The court misunderstood legal developments in California, Turley said, where the state Supreme Court does not grant absolute control of a child to the custodial parent. Even non-custodial atheists have a stake in the way their children are raised.

More important, Turley caught the mood of cynicism about this decision by writing, in Newsday, that the court was dancing an eyes-closed shuffle to avoid a ruling. “At the head of this constitutional conga line,” Turley wrote, “was an 84-year-old justice, John Paul Stevens, who showed that an octogenarian can still dance wildly in a crowded legal room without touching a single substantive issue.”

The truth is that the fate of the phrase “under God” is a symbolic issue. The real issue is the continuing and relentless effort to banish every trace of religion from the public square. “Under God” is in line with “In God We Trust” on our currency and “God save the United States and this honorable court” at the Supreme Court and a similar blessing in the president’s annual Thanksgiving message.

To defenders of the “under God” phrase, this is the key point: that the reflexive hostility to religion that now guides much of American liberalism will result in the step-by-step elimination of all these references, most of which, as Justice Sandra Day O’Connor and others have argued, are harmless expressions of “ceremonial deism.”

The anti-religious campaign presents itself, of course, as a high-minded concern about church-state separation. But that self-flattering view breaks down quickly under the most casual analysis. The American Civil Liberties Union hilariously argued that a moment of silence in Virginia schools equals “establishment of religion.” Recently, under threat of expensive litigation, the ACLU forced the removal of a tiny cross on a tiny building on the seal of Los Angeles County. The cross was included in a welter of symbols and referred to the Spanish missions that founded modern California. Even a semi-rational analysis might have concluded that this was a straightforward, unthreatening historical reference. But it was enough to send the ACLU into a spasm of church-state concern.

The strategy is simple: Never take the case to the American people; use unelected judges and the bullying threat of litigation to force unwanted change. And focus on even dubious marginal issues to create the impression that any religious reference in public is toxic. Jean Bethke Elshtain of the University of Chicago sees a massive form of liberal intolerance in this anti-religious campaign, which she refers to as “the squeezing of the last breath of life out of anything that presents itself as religious in any public way.”

The battle behind the “under God” issue pits true pluralists against intolerant secularists who are willing to accept religion, but only if it is defanged and totally privatized. The late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago pointed out how odd it is to claim a respect for religion while simultaneously insisting that people keep it to themselves. Stephen Carter of Yale memorably referred to this belief as “God as a hobby”; many secular thinkers have no problem with religion as long as it is as marginal and private as woodworking or bird-watching. But if religious people act on their beliefs, you begin to hear that somehow believers are “forcing” something on somebody else.

Such phrases have popped up in the presidential campaign, along with the religion-is-private theme song: “Religion is something between an individual and his God.” Actually, it isn’t. Most religions demand that believers exert themselves to shape a better society, not just sit and worship in some corner. The opponents of religion have made great headway in convincing Americans that it should not enter the public arena. But the struggle will continue. It is far from over.

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