Why Michael Newdow Loves America

Allow me to be the first person to offer Michael Newdow a oneway ticket (coach, please) out of the United States and leave him with the words of Southern outlaw music group Lynyrd Skynyrd: “I hope Mr. Newdow will remember, a Southern man don’t need him around anyhow”.

In 2002, the “notorious atheistMichael Newdow won a major court victory. The federal Ninth Circuit court ruled that the 1954 addition of the phrase “under God” to the United States Pledge of Allegiance was an unconstitutional endorsement of religion. The case was appealed to the Supreme Court, where it was ultimately thrown out due to a technicality of standing, leaving the constitutionality of the Pledge in legal limbo. Newdow refiled his suit in January 2005, and won the first stage in September when a district court ruled that it was still bound by the previous circuit court precedent.

What will become of this remains to be seen. But in the meantime, Newdow has had no shortage of advice, much of it constructive and helpful, some less so. Many of the astute minds in the second category, such as the author of the above excerpt, seem to feel that if Michael Newdow dislikes the United States so much, he should simply leave it, so that he will cause no further unrest for the fine, upstanding Christians who currently comprise the majority of its population.

I would like to offer some counter-advice to those who would like Michael Newdow to leave the country that is his home and mine. Although I cannot speak for Newdow, I feel reasonably certain he would agree with the following:

The reason Newdow filed his suit, and the reason we atheists want God out of the Pledge, is because we love America, not because we hate it. On the contrary – I want to pledge allegiance to my country. But I will not do so at the cost of abandoning my principles. That is why I object to the Pledge as it stands. I want it to be a statement that I and every other patriotic American can support without reservation, that I and every other atheist can say and mean without making a hypocrite of myself.

As evidence of my sincerity, consider that recitation of the Pledge is not mandatory. If we atheists really hated America, we wouldn’t care what the Pledge said, because we wouldn’t say it anyway. On the contrary, Newdow’s lawsuit must betoken a deep and abiding love for his country, because only a real and heartfelt desire to say the Pledge, matched only by a desire to do so sincerely, without compromising one’s ideals, would lead one to go to such effort. Michael Newdow is not an unintelligent man, and must have foreseen the backlash that would occur against him for filing this lawsuit. Why else would he go to the effort? Just to stir up trouble, to be the bomb-throwing provocateur of the religious? That is a strawman of the religious right – such people do not exist.

There are absolutely no grounds to question either Newdow’s sincerity or his patriotism, or the sincerity or patriotism of anyone who objects to the Pledge in its current form. But what about the wisdom of his course of action? Of course the Pledge in its current form is unconstitutional; that is not a close call. The issue is whether we atheists would be better served concentrating our efforts on repairing more grievous breaches of the wall between church and state, such as President Bush’s blatantly unconstitutional funneling of millions of taxpayer dollars to unqualified, unaccredited sectarian religious groups in the name of “faith-based initiatives“.

While one should in general not compromise one’s principles for the sake of expediency, I see nothing unethical about choosing the battles that seem most winnable. I cannot fault Newdow’s courage; I would not even say I disagree with what he is doing. Certainly many civil rights battles have been won despite the odds. However, if his case returned to the Supreme Court, especially with the new additions, I feel it likely he would lose. That alone would be a setback, but if he were to win, the consequences could be even more disastrous. In the current political climate, a constitutional amendment permanently religionizing the Pledge would be sure to pass, and this would be a significant step backwards: it would be the first constitutional amendment ever to roll back any part of the Bill of Rights, and would set a terrible precedent that would make our efforts vastly harder in the future.

All this must, of course, be balanced by the consideration of what constitutional harm is being done in the meantime by the message that patriotism requires believing in God. I know that I myself went through four years of public high school without a second thought about the presence of god-language in the Pledge; then again, I was not an atheist then. Those people who saw the wisdom of deconversion at a younger age than I, and especially those who grew up in a more religiously homogeneous community than I did, may well be held up for ridicule and exclusion because of this. It is the essence of the First Amendment that no citizen should ever feel like an outsider in public functions because of their religious beliefs, or lack thereof. If, as seems likely, this recognition is what is motivating Newdow’s quest, then I feel I have no right to dissuade him. I remain very conflicted about this.

But there is one important lesson about which I feel no uncertainty, one which Newdow’s case has brightly illuminated. Politicians and the religious should remember that an oath repeated by rote soon loses all meaning; the Pledge should be a conscious act of allegiance, not a government-sponsored exercise in conformity. The United States was founded on the ideal of individualism, the idea that our differences united would yield a whole greater than the sum of its parts. That is what it means to be an American patriot, and the idea that we should all act, think and believe the same is fundamentally opposed to this. The loud and ignorant contingent that thinks people should leave the country for voicing views that differ from their own are the ones who are acting in direct opposition to the Constitution – not Michael Newdow. And as with every other group of bigots that have faded into the trash heap of history, there will come a time when that is widely understood.

UPDATE: Since I first wrote this post, there has been a new development. Newdow’s suit against the Pledge continues; however, a district court recently threw out another church-state lawsuit he had filed, this one against the phrase “In God We Trust” on money, on the grounds that this religious statement is a “secular slogan”. I cannot exactly fault the court for this, as a previous lawsuit over this very matter – 1970′s Aronow v. United States – was decided the same way, and courts are not free to ignore existing precedent when handing down their decisions.

However, I can safely say that both this decision and the previous one were, on legal grounds, terrible, wrong, and plainly unconstitutional. By what bizarre logic could one conclude that the phrase “In God We Trust” is not a religious slogan? It expresses an opinion on the existence of God, on the truth of monotheism – it does not say “In Gods We Trust”, after all – and on humanity’s duty toward said god. The only way one could claim this slogan to be secular is by reasoning that it has been used so often that it no longer actually means anything at all, which is what the previous court did. But this is wrong. Words do not lose their meanings because they are frequently used. Any reasonable person speaking those words would not conclude them to be an otherwise meaningless affirmation of vague patriotism, but a religious sentiment based on a particular idea of how god-belief and the state should be intertwined. And that is a religious establishment – precisely what the First Amendment was intended to prevent. Again, although Newdow’s chances of prevailing seem slender in the current environment, one can at least conclude that he understands the Constitution far better than his adversaries.

Constitutional Crisis in Alabama?
The Rebirth of Nullification in Alabama
A Christian vs. an Atheist: On God and Government, Part 11
Weekend Coffee: March 28
About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, City of Light, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • http://endless-rambling.blogspot.com BlackWizardMagus

    I wish to ask a question that I never understood about courts, and I am hoping one of the many intelligent minds here can fill me in; what’s the deal with precedent? Courts can’t ignore it, but they can. They are supposed to follow precedent, but overturn it regularly. It is almost like some sort of excuse; when they support the idea but don’t want to come out and say it, they hide behind precedent, but if they dislike it, they’ll gladly overturn it. I know lower courts have a much harder time of this, and that I can understand, but are there really any set rules to precedent, or is it just something concieved by courts, for courts?

  • Mikidu

    BWM. Generally, the rule is that higher courts can and do overrule precedents set in lower courts. Lower courts are bound to follow precedents set by higher courts unless they can demonstate it was wrongly decided. Courts of the same standing usually follow precedent although they are not bound to do so.

  • Philip Thomas

    Precedent helps ensure that cases involving the same legal principles are decided the same way, thus preventing confusion. It isn’t foolproof, but it helps flesh out the law where the legislators have left matters ambiguous.

    Historically speaking, in the UK (far back enough for this to be relevant to USA legal theory), the Common Law consisted almost entirely of precedent, with statutes being the rarity. Nowadays more and more statutes are passed each year, so precedent is maybe less relevant.

  • tminuspi

    LOVED the Caserta letter! Same old song-and-dance, worthy of the blue ribbons rural Cabell County’s been handing out since the advent of johnnycake.

    Lynyrd Skynyrd was an “outlaw” music group? The handful of albums they released were with major labels; they used equipment made by corporate manufacturers; they toured on buses and jets; they copyright their tunes with the lockstep fervor of every other act on the planet; and they’ll still perform like perfumed mongrels at the sound of jingling shekels in the ol’ piggy bank: where exactly does the “outlaw” part come in?

    At any rate, more power to Newdow!

  • http://www.patheos.com/blog/daylightatheism/ Ebonmuse

    Lynyrd Skynyrd was an “outlaw” music group? The handful of albums they released were with major labels; they used equipment made by corporate manufacturers; they toured on buses and jets; they copyright their tunes with the lockstep fervor of every other act on the planet; and they’ll still perform like perfumed mongrels at the sound of jingling shekels in the ol’ piggy bank: where exactly does the “outlaw” part come in?

    Presumably in the same way that multimillionaire evangelical Christian leaders who meet directly with the President, preach sermons to tens of thousands in their personal megachurches every week, own their own radio stations, TV stations and publishing houses, and stand at the head of special interest groups composed of millions of like-minded believers, are “oppressed”.

  • tminuspi

    Beautifully put, Ebonmuse!

  • Shawn Smith

    About the phrase, “In God We Trust,” on U.S. currency–I heard that it was placed there to placate the religious conservatives who did NOT get the modification to the preamble of The Constitution they wanted during The American Civil War. Quite frankly, if that’s true, (I haven’t researched it myself, and I really don’t care to) I’m glad for the way things turned out.

    Words don’t generally lose their meaning through repetition, but they can lose their impact and forcefulness. I remember the first time I heard, “Holy Shit!” in a movie and thought, “oooooohhh–that’s really bad.” I was young at the time, but now it seems almost quaint. It seems that now, even “Fuck you” doesn’t sound so bad, especially if it’s said in a playful way. And if most people who use currency don’t even notice the “In God We Trust” phrase any more, that’s something that I’m not going to worry about.

    … it would be the first constitutional amendment ever to roll back any part of the Bill of Rights …

    It seems that the 18th amendment rolled back the idea that people have the right to control their own bodies by deciding what they can and cannot put in them, which might be interfering with a rather broad (probably incorrect) reading of the Eighth Amendment. The amendment you refer to would certainly be a much more direct attack on the First Amendment.

  • http://thegreenbelt.blogspot.com/ The Ridger

    Of course, what having “In God We Trust” on the money leads to is the ubiquitous “In God We Trust – All Others Pay Cash” signs, which always struck me as rather irreverent.

  • http://endless-rambling.blogspot.com BlackWizardMagus

    The eighteenth ammendment was indeed a violation fo our rights, just one that was under the blanket of the 10th ammendment.

    In God We Trust couldn’t have been because of the Civil War; our dollars are Federal Reserve Notes, which was made in 1913. I suppose the saying could have been carried over, but then the question is why did we decide to add it to the new bills (probably because the Federal Reserve is not run by the US Congress; it merely appoints the head who then does whatever he wants. Indeed, the US Congress is run by the Federal Reserve instead).

    Alright, well, the answer to my question was about what I thought; bad. Not to say the people assisting were wrong, but I mean the logic behind precedence of at least equal courts is idiocy. For the SC, let’s just say, to defer because of “precedent” and then overturn precedent in the next case is clearly a stupid principle. I agree that without following precedent of higher courts, we’d have 100 times as many lawsuits, because every single individual challenge would be a seperate case with a totally unique ruling. But that the SC, which has the power to pretty much do whatever the hell it pleases, to reference 23 precedents in a court decision (that’s probably an underestimate) is escaping their duty; that is, to look at the law, and see if it is Constitutional, or if it is not, period. Precedent is utterly irrelevant.

    Of course, this was me ranting, not a challenge to anyone else.

  • Brian Jones

    The idea, as I undertand it regarding precedent is this when the SCOTUS is involved:

    The consistency is very important, therefore, to overturn precedent, and hence consistency, the perceived violation must be extraordinary. An example would be when Brown v. Board of Education overturned Plessy v. Ferguson over the issue of separate but equal racial segregation.

    If a long-held decision has been cited by numerous subsequent decisions, is overturned, all those subsequent decisions can in turn be overturned. The more significant the case, landmark decisions if you will, the more cases are dependent upon them.

    I am a strong supporter of Newdow. I belong to his FACTS church and have been unable to donate to it given the doctrine against the church accepting money with a reference to God printed on it. Living in the same larger community has given me multiple opportunities to listen to him speak and limited socializing. He is intelligent and personable and I wish him well.

    That said, the court precedent I would like to see overturned BECAUSE it would lead to massive changes, namely reigning in the expansion of the federal government, is the 1942 case of Wickard v. Filburn. It is upon this case that that the current understanding of the interstate commerce clause of the constitution is derived. The constitution states that congress has the right to regulate interstate commerce. That is all well and good, but in Wickard a perverse logic was introduced to those words. At the time, farmers were restricted to a maximum quota of wheat production. Wickard produced a little more than the quota and although I haven’t read how that was dealt with, I suspect he was fined. He responded eventually, in the Supreme Court, by arguing that the extra wheat he grew was for personal use and therefore not subject to federal regulations whose stated authority was that of interstate commerce, a legitimate authority for wheat grown for sale.

    The court ruled that if Wickard had not grown his own wheat, he would have purchased wheat from someone else, thus he had indirectly affected interstate commerce and was subject to the law.

    This case was used as precedent in deciding the Atlanta Star Hotel case where a black man was denied a hotel room because those arguing the case saw that would probably lose if arguing on civil rights law straigt up (as memory serves). Thus much civil rights law today is based on Wickard. The man in question was a traveling salesman.

    It was also used last year in Gonzales (the infamous Alberto) v. Raich where the DEA was ruled to have authority superior to the State of California regarding medicinal marijuana due to the fact that the California grown and consumed pot deprived pot farmers in other states of the would-be commerce.

    This has gotten so out of hand, that Reason magazine pointed it out like this: Prior to the confirmation of John Roberts to the SCOTUS, they made a list of questions they would ask if allowed to ask questions in the confirmation hearings. Number one on the list was, “What does NOT constitute interstate commerce?” In other words, if indirect effects on commerce are counted, everything falls under that clause, which is an idiotic stance since the clause was meant as a specific exemption to broad limitations on Congressional authority.