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 atheist” Michael 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.