America under God: an undeclared theocracy

The United States must be one of the world’s most religiously fundamentalist states. From its occasional alliances with the Vatican to official debates about evolutionism in the science classroom or a woman’s right to choose, “God” infuses U.S. political discourse to an extent virtually unrivaled in the contemporary era.

I have thus always been struck by the absence of perceived irony of commentators denouncing the fanaticism of the theocratic governments in, say, Iran or Afghanistan while uttering nary a word about comparable tendencies a bit closer to home.

Such criticism is entirely appropriate. But it’s still remarkable how condescending some Americans can be about, for instance, the (inexcusable) stoning in the name of Islam of an adulterer in Saudi Arabia, as if Christian doctrine didn’t overwhelmingly influence or even dictate many policies in the United States.

It was with this American fundamentalism in mind that I monitored the predictable reaction to the recent appellate ruling in California adjudging as unconstitutional the words “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance.

For the record, I fully concur with the judicial decision, although it unfortunately might be overturned on appeal. Should it be overturned, proponents of the Pledge will likely view the three-member appellate panel’s reversal as some sort of vindication, and mock the 9th Circuit judges for being so horribly “wrong.” But just because a higher court overturns a decision doesn’t mean the ruling was mistaken; rather, as legal scholar Erwin Chemerinsky recently noted, it just means that the higher court got the last word.

I have a hard time understanding how “under God” could not be interpreted as a state establishment of religion. These two words were added to the Pledge during the Cold War, and were specifically intended to “proclaim … the dedication of our nation and our people to the Almighty,” according to President Dwight Eisenhower himself, signing the legislation in 1954.

Yet even with that said, when considered in the greater scope of things, last week’s ruling seems to me a relatively minor issue. Limiting one’s objections only to the words struck down by the 9th Circuit panel overlooks larger points about coercion and acquiescence. And isn’t it about time we disposed of the dangerous practice of pledging one’s allegiance to a nation-state in the first place?

This past week, millions of Americans celebrated the Fourth of July holiday, wondering how best to express their patriotism in the wake of the attacks on Sept. 11. Like millions of their school-age children across the country, many undoubtedly also lined up to proudly recite the Pledge.

But rather than pledging allegiance to the republic for which the flag stands, why not instead express one’s support for certain universal principles and ideals? This allows people to applaud official U.S. policy when it is consistent with international standards of “liberty and justice” (standards which, incidentally, in part have their origins in the activism of countless Americans).

It also allows people to oppose official U.S. policy when it too often militates against these just principles. How, for instance, will Americans this week reconcile their oft-expressed belief in freedom and independence with their government’s recently-iterated rejection of Palestinian self-determination and concurrent de facto support for what is essentially Israeli colonialism? If Americans cherish the movement that led to their country’s independence from European rule – even if they frequently ignore that the settler state it established persisted in the brutal dispossession of the continent’s indigenous population – then why not demand U.S. solidarity with the Palestinian people rather than the Israeli government illegally occupying their land?

And where is the “liberty and justice” the Pledge promises “for all” when considering those thousands of individuals at Guantanamo Bay and elsewhere – being indefinitely imprisoned by the United States despite not being charged with any crime and without access to any legal recourse?

Or how about the total U.S. rejection of the International Criminal Court? Is there “justice” in the Bush administration’s efforts to resume substantial aid to the repressive Indonesian military? Should we pledge allegiance to the leadership of the world’s most powerful state when it consistently sides with profit over people?

As the “love it or leave it” crowd has so amply demonstrated since Sept. 11, being “American” is too often considered synonymous with endorsing the actions of the American state – however reprehensible such policies might be.

In a nation that loudly trumpets the freedom it purportedly allows individuals, it’s frightening how often millions of people remain willing to coerce what others must say, hear, or do.

Scott Laderman’s columns appear alternate weeks. He welcomes comments at [email protected]. Send letters to
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