On Freedom

4 July 2002

There's been a lot of sturm und drang this past week over the recent ruling by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. Just in case you somehow missed it, the justices ruled 2-1 that having students in public schools recite the Pledge of Allegiance, which contains the phrase "under God," is an unconstitutional mix of church and state. Predictably, every politician who could get quoted by the media decried the decision: "outrageous," "nuts," "crazy," and "stupid" were just a few of the words thrown around. "Our Founding Fathers must be spinning in their graves," said one Republican senator.

Would they? I'm not so certain. I suspect the Founding Fathers were keenly aware of the dangers inherent in state-sponsored religion. After all, many of them (or their parents) had come from a country where the state did sponsor a religion, and by implication (or action) discouraged the adoption of others. It seems to me the Founding Fathers were determined to avoid that mistake, and so constructed a government that wouldn't fall victim to the same errors.

For instance, suppose church and state were to be reunited, here in America. Would that be so great? If you think so, would you feel the same if the preferred state religion were one other than yours? For example, let's say the government chose to favor a really widespread Christian denomination, like Protestantism. Is that likely to make Catholics or the Baptists happy? How about the Jews? Or Muslims? Even if the preferred state religion were simple monotheism, how does that make the atheists and polytheists among us feel? Like most of us would feel if the official state religion were polytheistic, or the official state position were atheism—which it isn't, despite what conservatives might have you believe. Neutrality isn't the same thing as atheism.

The codified neutrality of the state with respect to the church—well, the theory of it, at any rate—is one of the unique features of America. It's something that conservatives, of all people, should be fighting to protect even more vigorously than liberals. (Some of them are, in fact, but not nearly as many as should.) This neutrality guarantees a freedom for all religions in our country, save those which violate more important laws; obviously, religions involving human sacrifice aren't really acceptable here, since we have laws against murder. And why do we have those? Because we think it's important that no person's freedom to live should be violated by another, not even in the name of religion. It isn't due to a religious intolerance, but a behavioral intolerance.

"Liberal stooge," conservatives would no doubt sneer, "your soft-headedness makes me sick. The Declaration of Independence itself refers to the Creator, so you're saying that it's un-Constitutional as well! Are you trying to say that America itself is un-Constitutional?" Um, no. The Declaration predates the Constitution, and therefore cannot be either Constitutional or not. It is a historical document, one undeniably important to our country, but its Constitutionality can never be an issue. You'll notice that the Constitution itself makes absolutely no reference to God, a Creator, or any other divine presence. That ought to tell us something.

In fact, the only reference to religion throughout the Constitution and the Bill of Rights is in the First Amendment: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof..." Of course, the question is what does or doesn't constitute establishment of religion or prohibit its free exercise. These sorts of sticky issues are precisely why we have a judicial system.

As for "under God," I personally don't see what the big fuss is: just take it out. After all, it was inserted in 1954 at the behest of President Eisenhower, who at that point in history probably couldn't have been refused much of anything by the American people. Removing it does no great harm to the country, or even to the rhythm of the Pledge itself. Try it yourself:

I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America and to the Republic for which it stands, one nation indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.

When I was in school, after I gave up religion in favor of agnosticism, I simply didn't utter the words "under God," which is a favored remedy for some. However, I can attest to the fact that I felt self-conscious about staying silent, even for those two words. It was more important to me to honor my own principles than conform, but I could feel the societal pressure anyway. There was the feeling that perhaps one was less of patriot if one didn't pledge allegiance to God as well as to the flag. This is exactly the basis on which the 9th Circuit Court's ruling rested.

What seems to me so tragic about all this is that public schools have much deeper problems than whether or not kids say the Pledge of Allegiance. Lack of funding, crumbling infrastructure, oudated material, poor education, lack of safety—all these things, and more, are far more important in both the short and long terms. That's one reason why Cleveland set up a school voucher program that let parents take their children out of the public schools and use the vouchers to pay for private education. It turned out that the vast majority of parents sent their kids to religious schools, and that led to the question of whether taxpayer money (in the form of public schools issuing vouchers to pay for private education) should be going to religious schools. The Supreme Court ruled that this was not a violation of the separation of church and state, ironically delivering their ruling one day after the "under God" ruling.

Massive inconsistency? No. What the Supreme Court upheld was the parents' freedom to choose how to spend their tax money, which (one could argue) they paid to have their children go to school. A voucher program lets the parents choose between public and private school, and if private, which private school. It is not the government's business how those private schools are run, according to the Supreme Court. It is the business of the parents. I agree with this ruling as well, because it gives parents the freedom to seek out an education they feel is most appropriate for their child. While the consequence may be a complete collapse of the public education system, at least in some areas, that may be the only way to fix it: by starting over.

What's truly sad is that it ever came to the point that parents felt it necessary to remove their children from public schools in order to get a decent education, let alone that in some places the public education system has fallen apart so completely. The usual claim (especially from conservatives) is that the schools have failed us. It seems to me this is exactly backwards, not unlike blaming a rape victim for the rape. We as a society failed the schools, in the sense that we pushed them into being baby-sitters for the kids we couldn't be bothered to properly raise. When a teacher spends more time on discipline than education, there's a problem, and the problem doesn't exactly lie with the teacher. But that's another essay—one that concerns responsibility more than it does freedom.