Rethinking the Pledge Argument

For the last three years, the words "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance have sown the seeds of controversy. When a federal appeals court ruled on the issue, church-state separationists were disturbed by the reflexive response of politicians and the media. Instead of attempting to explore the serious religious freedom issue at the heart of the case, they took the easy way out: they vilified critics of the Pledge.

President George W. Bush, in Canada at the time, went so far as to declare that "I believe that [the ruling] points up the fact that we need common-sense judges who understand that our rights were derived from God." Bush then added, "And those are the kind of judges I intend to put on the bench." Democrats in Congress joined Republicans in helping to pass resolutions denouncing the court's decision.

Rather than consider whether Congress violated the constitutional separation of church and state when it passed a law adding the words "under God" to the Pledge, the national discussion centered on simple images of children reciting the Pledge and the rhetorical question: who does this hurt?

The U.S. Supreme Court ducked the constitutional question earlier this year, kicking out a challenge on standing grounds. The issue is likely to come back at some point in the future. In the meantime, church-state separationists are struggling with the important challenge of explaining to America why those two words matter.

Michael Seidman, a Law Professor at the Georgetown University Law Center, has attempted to grapple with this difficult question. He suggests that "critics of the pledge should reverse the argument they made the first time around: The problem I face as a nonbeliever is not that I am forced to recite the Pledge. The problem is that I am prevented from reciting it."

By using language in the Pledge that speaks to the majority but it anathema to members of other religious communities or none at all, the state effectively bars those outside the "Judeo-Christian" tradition from pledging allegiance to their country. The value of their citizenship is degraded.

"The Pledge therefore defines them as outside of the American community, as people who cannot express their patriotism without violating their most profound beliefs," says Seidman.

Seidman's argument asks the majority to step back and consider this exclusion in light of core American principles. If we are to truly be "one nation, indivisible," our government must carefully consider the impact of its edicts on minorities.

To do otherwise creates a religious requirement for loyalty and tells non-believers that they cannot be fully American. Our history is one of broadening the definitions of Americanism. Our commitment to the Constitution is tested when we attempt to grapple with citizens who, though not like ourselves, share in the American experience.