Atheism, the pledge and McCarthyism
It could have been just me, having come from Germany where such events
only occur in church. But I was surprised when at City Hall last Monday
the entire Council stood with arms folded, silently attentive as Vice
President Carol Wood gave a long Christian prayer as a prelude to the
Pledge of Allegiance. Compared to her prayer, the words under
God seem like a minor violation of the separation of church and
state. Given the uproar over the court decision on the pledge, imagine
what would happen if the court said prayers at governmental meetings
Its not constitutional at all, Elliot Glicksman, Cooley
Law School professor in Lansing, said about the phrase under God.
A three-member panel of federal judges, acting on a suit by a
father against his daughters school system, declared the pledge
an unconstitutional separation of church and state. The government
cannot impose a prayer, whether its written by the school system
or whether its sanctioned by the public school, Glicksman
said. The judges put the decision on hold the next day after the strongly
adverse public reaction.
We are celebrating, its wonderful, said Arlene-Marie,
Michigan state director for American Atheists. It is a very important
step in the direction of establishing a separation of church and state.
Our constitution is secular, not religious. Arlene-Marie said
many public schools in Michigan force their students to say the pledge.
Of course they always emphasize that a child who doesnt
want to doesnt have to. But Arlene-Marie, like other atheists,
believes a child should never be forced to make that decision. She calls
it subtle pressure. I have to handle money which says in
God we trust; but there is no God in my life.
an atheists perspective, not only would the Pledge of Allegiance
need to be revised, but so would the entire money system. The back of
the dollar bill bears the label In God We Trust, and the
Latin inscription Annuit coeptis, which translates He
[God] agrees with what was begun. The Latin quote is from a poem
by Vergil: Novus ordo seclorum, another Virgil quote on
the dollar, means the new world order, written to praise
Emperor Augustus and later used by Roman Christians to praise the Kingdom
Glicksman said the arguments against the pledge were clear and convincing.
It was a school setting. If the Pledge of Allegiance took place
at a baseball game, you wouldnt have the same legal fight.
Mahmoud Mousa, president of the Islamic Center in East Lansing, agrees
with the new ruling. He believes the separation of church and state
should be upheld as it was written in the Constitution, as long
as it doesnt touch the freedom to practice a religion, because
thats constitutional as well.
It was under President Dwight Eisenhower that the phrase under
God was originally added to the Pledge of Allegiance. The year
1954 had been the peak of McCarthyism and the House Un-American Activities
Committee hearings. The world was deep in the Cold War. The Korean War
had just ended in a shaky truce. It was also a high point of forcing
teachers and other public employees to take loyalty oaths. From 1892
to 1954, no one had had a problem saying the pledge without mentioning
Apparently McCarthyism never went away, says Bonnie Bucqueroux,
Green Party candidate for Congress from Lansing in 2000. She recently
hosted a reporter from the Algerian newspaper El Watan. Since
she had always heard we were very clear to separate government from
religion, she couldnt understand what was going on, she
said. The Algerian woman put her life on the line to become a reporter
when between 1993 and 1998 more than 100 of her colleagues were killed
fighting for a secular society. Bucqueroux says that as a child she
herself was sent out of the classroom for refusing to say the pledge.
In 1967, sociologist Robert Bellah coined the term civil religion to
explain the role of religion in the United States. Bellah argued that
religion and God played a key role within the political sphere without
being linked to a specific church. He concluded that Americas
own martyrs, its own sacred events and sacred places, its own
solemn rituals and symbols included biblical archetypes such as
Exodus, the Chosen People and the Promised Land. He concluded that civil
religion made America a society as perfectly in accord with the
will of God as men can make it and a light to all the nations.
When on Sept. 14 President Bush declared in Washingtons National
Cathedral that Americans now had the responsibility to answer
these attacks and rid the world of evil, (later to become the
axis of evil) Bellah, now emeritus professor at the University
of California at Berkeley, was shocked. It was a stunningly inappropriate
talk by Bush, basically because it was a war talk, he told The
It was during the war against Vietnam in 1967 that Bellah argued in
his book Religion in America that Americas civil religion
model could be misused to divide the world into us and them, to make
God serve as cover for something else. With respect to Americas
role in the world, the dangers of distortion are greater and the built-in
safeguards of the [civil religion] tradition weaker, Bellah wrote.