Friday, July 12, 2002
Pledge Responsibilities

The Pledge issue has probably run its course. Most folks with anything to say about it have likely already weighed in with their comments. That would mean it's probably time for the rest of us to shut up.

Please indulge me in one last set of comments, and then I will try to do my best to do just that regarding this issue. Reserving, of course, my right to say more should circumstances warrant. Say, along the lines of my comments yesterday about this TAP Online article and how political writers who try to use statistical reasoning ought to use mathematically sound statistical methods. And basic accurate language.

So, onto those "final" points.

I hope I didn't sound like a victim. I'm pretty sure I didn't in anything I posted here, but I did gripe to a correspondent that after the Ninth Circuit's judgement and after posting my initial comments about it (no link at the moment, because archieves seem to be down right now) along the lines of "I figured out how not to say 'under God' when saying The Pledge while I was in high school," I started to wonder why in tarnation *I* had to go around omitting "under God" when I said The Pledge. Why was the onus on *me*?

That's pretty darned close to a victim mentality, and I'm not one to support victim mentality in matters of political dispute. Yes, it's an inconvenience to me, and, yes, I wish I didn't have to do it, and, yes, I think the larger civic life of The Republic would be enhanced by not having those two little words in The Pledge. But, let's get real, it's not a matter of life or death, and there are other issues that likely will determine the continued success or not of The Republic.

This comes into play because the issue of what the eight year old whose father brought the suit believes has come into play. Her mother says that the little girl is a Christian, which, to me, means that the mother takes the little girl to church on Sunday. The moment I heard the teaser for the teevee news at eleven last night regarding the mother's claims, it became clear to me that this lawsuit was just another part of the battle between the father and the mother regarding the raising of the daughter. You only have to go back to the NYT article on the father (again, the link is somewhere in the archives not currently on line) and read just a tiny bit between the lines about his statements of family law being his larger concern to see how the lawsuit regarding The Pledge fits into that.

Of course, part of the taking of the victim's perspective is required by law. Without a claim of injury, of being some kind of victim, there's nothing to sue about. And, in what I've read since the news in the most recent cycle about this regarding the mother's claims, the father is sticking to a line that he, not the little girl, is the victim. That he ought to be able to decide what she gets exposed to in matters religious, not the schools.

My personal opinion is that free and responsible individuals are and ought to be able to decide for themselves their own beliefs regarding the existence of one or more divine entities or distributions. Children are not quite free and responsible individuals: we leave much of the deciding of what goes on in their lives to the parties responsible for the children, which is usually the parents of those children. We have fair civic expectations that those parents will raise those children in a manner that facilitates the children's participation in civic life. As the child grows, we increase the degree to which children enrolled in public schools are exposed to matters of civic responsibility that come with being part of a society that values the freedom of its members.

It seems to me responsible to describe to older children and younger adults the varieties of religious belief among the members of the civic population in accurate unbiased terms: that in the USA the largest fraction is some variety of Christian, that there are numerous Jews and Muslims and Hindus and Buddhists among the other worldwide mainstream religions, that there are believers in statistically more ideosyncratic religious ideas with smaller populations, and that there are some atheists. And that this should be done without rancor or dismissal on the part of the instructors, regardless of what those individual's beliefs are.

I started elementary school in 1962, the year of the US Supreme Court's prayer in public schools decision. I don't recall any classroom prayer in my school, even after JFK was shot and killed, until I reached the sixth grade. My sixth grade teacher, Mrs. Lewis, started class each day by having us recite The Lord's Prayer. At the time, it never occurred to me to complain, even though I probably knew that we weren't supposed to be doing that according to the highest court in the land.

I'm also pretty sure that Mrs. Lewis knew that the highest court in the land had said she wasn't supposed to do that. She didn't let that stop her. She also read to us apocalyptic stories that, at the time, I just thought were kinda gorey horror tales, but that I now see on reflection were really predecessors of the Left Behind series so popular with some.

Now my parents pretty much left my religious life to me. My mom had taken me to the local Baptist church in my home town (Centerville, Tennessee, population 2500 at the time and the only incorporated town in Hickman County, population about 12,000) when I was real little. When I was in the third grade, I started going to the Methodist church with a friend. And it was while I was in the sixth grade that I joined that church (and am still, technically, a member). My guess is that my parents would've taken any complaints on my part -- not that I'm sure I'd've had them at the time -- about Mrs. Lewis's action with little concern. My mom was simply religious, and my dad was not religious (to my knowledge). But they could both tend to the "don't rock the boat" perspective in such matters.

So what's the point of all this rambling background? In the context of "life's not fair," it becomes important for parents wishing their children eventually to make their own choices in matters of belief to explain the nature and history of the "under God" insertion into The Pledge. (Should the Ninth Circuit's decision be upheld on review, it, similarly, would become important for those to whom those words are a great matter to explain the same, from that other context, to their children.) Regardless of the ultimate outcomes of court decisions in this matter, each child will hopefully grow into a responsible free individual capable of deciding their own beliefs for themselves. The parent's role is to be honest about their own beliefs, about the beliefs in this society and the larger world.

Yes, this has the downside of opening up the number of options, not closing them down. But I don't get the impression that even proponents of having "under God" in The Pledge are in favor of closing down the ability of others to think freely. And thankfully, we have a long history of tolerance of others' beliefs and respectful disagreement regarding such.

So, the way out of victimology in this matter is to recognize our own responsibilities. First, no matter what the law, as long as excessive physical abuse is not involved, we can largely determine our own beliefs. The subtle kind of endorsement of monotheism implemented by the use of "under God" is ignorable -- not passively ignorable, but actively ignorable -- in this nation. No jackbooted thugs come for us in the middle of the night if we believe otherwise, or if we omit the words while saying The Pledge, or if we don't say The Pledge at all.

Second, if we honestly believe the words "under God" should not be in The Pledge, we have a responsibility to say as much and to try our best to explain the reasons such. I believe the words should not be in The Pledge. I believe the varieties of belief in this nation are sufficiently broad that the single phrase "under God" both does not capture them adequately and also actively frames monotheism as a desirable norm, not just a statistical one.

Third, I think the debate about the use of "under God" in The Pledge is distinct enough from debate about religious behavior in other aspects of civic life that what we decide to do in one regard doesn't necessarily determine what we do in others. The guy who brought The Pledge lawsuit has stated his opposition to prayer and Bible readings at presidential inaugurations. It seems to me that it each president should decide the appropriateness of such at each inauguration: we don't need for the courts or the Congress or some Constitutional Convention to tell each and every president how his or her inauguration should run.

Similarly, legisilative bodies should be able to decide how to conduct their daily business. If they decide as an ensemble through fair and legitimate rules to have a chaplain and have a prayer, more power to them. And similarly should they decide otherwise.

Lastly, I would rather see this issue settled through a political than a judicial process. Candidates for legislatures and Congress and executive offices and judgeships (where appropriate) should say what they believe in these matters and what they think policy should be. I am clueless enough to believe that in the long run, the civic life of the nation would be enhanced if politicians would be honest about their own beliefs rather than sucking up to those who express their beliefs loudly.

So that's my way out of my own victimology. I have lived with omitting "under God" from my personal saying of The Pledge for my entire adult life. It hasn't killed me. It similarly wouldn't kill those who believe it ought to be there to add it silently as they say a Pledge that omits it. That means that any victimology adopted by those who support maintained inclusion of "under God" in The Pledge is as suspect as my own victimology was.

That puts us, luckily, in the same boat, because we are all in the same boat, whether we like it or not. Instead of sniping at each other, we ought to be watching each others' backs.