Sunday, September 18, 2005

Under God

It occurred to me the other day after a Federal District Court judge refused to grant a motion to dismiss in the latest version of Newdow vs. Elk Grove School District  that the case would make an excellent movie. As a baby boomer, I know the pledge at a visceral level.  I grew up saluting a tiny flag that occupied a space just above the left corner of the chalk board.  The flag had just acquired its 49th and 50th stars with the first two non contiguous states west of California.  Even in second grade, I remember feeling slightly uncomfortable about two parts of the pledge.  There was “Under God” which made me feel like I was in church instead of school and there was “liberty and justice for all” which clashed with pictures I’d seen on tv and in the newspaper that told me that blacks in the south and Mexicans in the west weren’t getting either much of the time.  I  think my father had seen the Murrow documentary Harvest of Shame and that  he simply believed that everyone should vote.  

Both my parents had attended de facto segregated schools as children in California.  My father had been to Lincoln Junior High in Sacramento and my mother went to Marina Junior High in San Francisco.  One of the oddities in my father’s 1942 reunion list is that about a fifth of the names are Japanese.  For most of those students, it was their last year in a California public school.   Most of them don't appear in the 8th grade graduation photo.There’s a comment in my father’s 40th  1982 reunion booklet from one of the Japanese students remembering a Mr. Brosin for telling the students at the school after Pearl Harbor that Japanese students were as American as anyone else.  Pearl Harbor had happened in December of that school year.  

I went to a private school in Sacramento, actually Carmichael, called Thomas Parker.  It may have been one of the most educationally conservative schools in America in that Mr. Parker admired traditional education.  In those days, that meant Ginn and McGuffey readers which seemed to conclude every lesson with some sort of Christian moral and learning Latin in the fourth grade.  I was the only non-white student in the school.  Less than a decade earlier, my uncle George had decided to buy property and build a home in the Sierra Oaks area of North Sacramento.  The neighbors circulated a petition to keep him from moving in.  In those days, Elk Grove was farm land that frequently flooded during the winters.  Madeleine Murray (later O’hair), a mother with a law degree,  was in Baltimore challenging the constitutionality of school prayer on behalf of her son William who was getting beaten up by peers for refusing to participate in his school’s mandatory prayer.  Public school  racial Segregation had been  eliminated for all of eight years by Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas which just happened to be the same year that Congress added the words “Under God” to the pledge of allegiance, as a vaccine against the atheism endorsed by communism.  It was only in 1943 that the Supreme Court had ruled in West Virginia v Barnett that schools could not require individual children to say the pledge.  Loving v. Virginia made miscegenation laws unconstitutional in 1967 which means that had I been born a generation earlier that my own daughter would not have legally married parents had we lived in any of several states.  

Michael Newdow is very close to my age.  The Newdow case contains  more than a few unusual aspects, but a biological father’s rights are high on the list.  Newdow and Sandra Banning were never married.  In fact, Newdow who is both a doctor and a lawyer has accused Banning of commiting date rape against him. background article on Newdow case Newdow is like Madalyn Murray O’hair, a self-proclaimed atheist, Sandra Banning became a fundamentalist Christian after the birth of their daughter.  One of the very subtle subtexts of the case has been the right of biological fathers in choice of all kinds for their children.  The last time through, Newdow won in the 9th Circuit, the most liberal appellate court in the U.S.  Although the 9th circuit did not discuss the question of whether Newdow who has never had custody of his daughter had standing to sue as his daughter’s biological father, the U.S. Supreme Court reversed the case based on Newdow’s lack of standing rather than rule on the Constitutional merits.

It’s possible that no case better expresses the current cultural divide in America today.  Newdow went back and recruited three families with clear custodial and educational rights to revive his case.   Last week, a Sacramento District Court Judge determined that the Supreme Court had not really reversed the 9th circuit’s Constitutional decision in its entirety and essentially claimed that its finding that “under god” remained unconstitutional at least in the 9th Circuit.  In the 4th circuit, there is a ruling that says exactly the opposite.  The case will likely come back up to the U.S. Supreme Court as a first test for the new appointees.  It’s unlikely to come before the court this fall while the court has 8 justices, but one of the issues in the last version was Newdow’s request that Justice Scalia, a devout Catholic who had publicly criticized the “Under God” as unconstitutional position, recuse himself.

In 1995 Madalyn Murray O’hair and her family disappeared along with 600 thousand dollars that belonged to the American Atheist Association.   According to court records, O’hair and her granddaughter were kidnapped at gun point by an ex-convict, David Roland Waters, who forced them to withdraw the money then murdered them.  The granddaughter was the daughter of her son William who converted to Christianity in 1980 and became an evangelical minister, an odd resonance with Michael Newdow and
Sandra Banning.

I won’t predict what might happen to the current version of the Newdow case or to his family.  When I look back at my father’s Lincoln Junior High reunion, I see social progress since 1942.  In 1962, I was the only non-white in my Sacramento private school.  Last week, my daughter played against an exclusive San Francisco Catholic school that was mostly Asian.  Almost all of those kids would have been at Galileo High School in 1944 when my mother entered high school.  King’s Birmingham protests came in 1963.  There has been substantial social progress in 43 years when I was saying the pledge every day in school along with the still new phrase “Under God”.  

I should mention that the Pledge itself has a fascinating history. It was first written by a Baptist Minister, Francis Bellamy (Edward Bellamy's cousin), who also happened to be a devoted socialist in 1891. Just a generation removed from the Civil war, "one nation indivisible" was a significant part of the pledge's message. Bellamy also wanted the phrase "Equality" inserted in the pledge, but it was rejected by his fellow school superintendents. Oddly, for whatever reason, school superintendents as a group have always fallen on the wrong side of the pledge of allegiance controversies. The original pledge also referred to "my flag" rather than "the flag of the United States of America", suggesting that the country belonged to those who said it rather than the other way around. The "liberty and justice for all" end of the pledge was a clear marker of Bellamy's socialism. In 1954, the Knights of Columbus campaigned to add the words "under god" and transformed the pledge from a statement of a promise to all regardless of race, country of origin, and social class into a cross between a prayer and a loyalty oath. The pledge's own history embodies the paradox of liberty in 20th century America and Mortimer Adler among others has pointed out that it calls for "liberty" balanced with "Justice".

In 2005, unlike Michael Newdow,I’m less worried about the “Under God” part of the pledge than I am about the “Liberty and Justice for All” part. If we don’t commit ourselves to that as a nation, what’s the point of the pledge anyway?

"This instrument can teach, it can illuminate; yes, and it can even inspire, but it can do so only to the extent that humans are determined to use it to those ends. Otherwise it is merely wires and lights in a box." Edward R. Murrow on television.



At 9/18/2005 02:41:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The "under God" part really matters to me.

As a happy and reasonably decent pagan who has never killed anyone nor supported the proxy killing in war either, I resent the hell out of my American rituals having a reference to God in them when why not Pan or Zeus or Allah or Others? I find the piety rankling and anti-American and anti-democratic.

I think the desert monotheisms have a lot to answer for. We have a much better shot at liberty & justice for all if we keep the very strictist separation of church and state.

At 9/18/2005 02:45:00 PM, Blogger Chancelucky said...

Mr. Pogblog,
I did add a paragraph about the pledge and its creator Francis Bellamy who was both a minister and a socialist.

We may disagree. I think it's far more important to deliver Bellamy's vision of liberty and justice for all than it is to delete "under god", but his original pledge really is quite a promise.


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