March 24, 2004
Of God and the Flag
By WILLIAM SAFIRE
ASHINGTON — As a very little boy, I thought the opening words to the recitation required at school every morning were "I led the pigeons to the flag." Seemed odd, but I figured the teacher knew best.
In my 20's, I noticed how the rhythm of the assertion of national unity at the conclusion of the Pledge of Allegiance — "one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all" — was broken into by the insertion by Congress in 1954 of the phrase "under God" between "one nation" and "indivisible." As a geezer today, I sometimes trip over the inserted piety in recitation.
This morning, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear the argument of an atheist who persuaded the Left Coast Court of Appeals to strike that religious phrase from the pledge recited in public school. Michael Newdow, appearing pro se, without counsel, will urge the court to affirm the decision to which a vast majority of us object.
In my view, the complaining atheist has no "standing" to bring the case in the first place on behalf of the schoolchild. He never married his daughter's mother. She is a self-described "committed Christian" who has been rearing their child and wants her daughter to recite the pledge.
Solicitor General Ted Olson, the most effective constitutional lawyer in the nation, can be expected to start by challenging the father's standing to sue. However, Justice Antonin Scalia, the court's sternest stickler on standing, has disqualified himself because he expressed his opinion prejudging the "under God" phrase in a speech last year. (For proper standards on recusal, read Scalia's persuasive memo on his Cheney nonrecusal at www.supremecourtus.gov/opinions/03pdf/03-475.pdf.)
On wider grounds of the traditional recognition of the deity in American political life, Olson could point to the words "In God We Trust," put on our coins in Lincoln's time. Or the fervent reference to "the Creator" as the source of our rights that Jefferson put in our Declaration of Independence. Or the words opening this morning's session: "God save the United States and this honorable court."
Even George Washington, at the end of taking the oath of office as prescribed in the Constitution, was moved to ad-lib the phrase "So help me God," which has been added by most presidents being inaugurated since. This sort of general public reverence is part of our political culture.
So what's the big deal about "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance?
Agreeing with both Bush and Kerry in support of "under God" are majorities in both houses of Congress and attorneys general of all 50 states. From the liberal National Education Association and American Jewish Congress to the conservative American Legion and the Knights of Columbus (which sponsored this addition 50 years ago), under-God-ers have weighed in with briefs. Opposing are the Atheist Law Center, the A.C.L.U., A.D.L. and assorted iconoclasts.
The only thing this time-wasting pest Newdow has going for him is that he's right. Those of us who believe in God don't need to inject our faith into a patriotic affirmation and coerce all schoolchildren into going along. The key word in the pledge is the last one.
The insertion was a mistake then; the trouble is that knocking the words out long afterward, offending the religious majority, would be a slippery-slope mistake now.
The justices shouldn't use the issue of standing to punt, thereby
letting this divisive ruckus fester. The solution is for the court to
require teachers to inform students they have the added right to remain
silent for a couple of seconds while others choose to say "under God."