From the Worldwide Faith News archives

Commentary: Court misses mark with 'pledge' ruling

From NewsDesk <NewsDesk@UMCOM.ORG>
Date Fri, 28 Jun 2002 11:14:59 -0500

June 28, 2002  News media contact: Tim Tanton7(615)742-54707Nashville, Tenn.

NOTE: A head-and-shoulders photograph of the Rev. Mike Macdonald is

A UMNS Commentary
By the Rev. Mike Macdonald*

Religiously speaking, the recent ruling by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals
that it violates the Constitution for school children to recite the Pledge
of Allegiance is unimportant. 

First, God is not impressed by mechanical lip service. In the book of
Isaiah, he pronounces judgment against his people because they "draw near
with their mouth and honor me with their lips, while their hearts are from
me," and their religion is "a human commandment learned by rote." According
to MSNBC, the Supreme Court has suggested in the past that the phrase "In
God We Trust" on our currency is acceptable precisely because its "religious
significance has been lost to rote repetition."

Second, religion does not need the imprimatur of the state. When church and
state are commingled, religion becomes the handmaiden of politics. Within
hours of the court's ruling, politicians were swarming to take political
advantage of this ruling. Even in the unlikely event that the Supreme Court
sustains the appeals court in its ruling, genuine faith and piety will not
be harmed. 

Nevertheless, the kindest word I can think of to describe the court's ruling
is "inane." I support the separation of church and state. It protects the
church from the corrupting influence of people whose real interest is in
secular power, and it respects the right of individuals not to be forced to
support religious claims that they do not accept. I do not think that a
Hindu child should be forced to take part in a Christian prayer at school.
It is good that schools are not allowed to begin each day with a prayer and
Bible reading like I did in the first grade.

But there have always been people who have treated the Constitutional
separation of church and state as if it required the United States to be an
atheistic society. Some have tried to prevent children from reading Bibles
at school on their own time or to ban religious clubs as an extracurricular
activity. Some have wanted to prevent schools from even acknowledging the
secular side of Christmas like Santa Claus and Rudolph. A lawsuit was filed
to try to prevent astronauts from reading the Bible while broadcasting from
outer space. The courts have consistently ruled that all of these activities
are allowed. 

The Constitution was meant to keep the government from establishing a state
religion. It was never intended to ban all acknowledgment of the existence
of religion from the public square.

In its ruling, the court said that the phrase "under God" is as unacceptable
as saying one nation "under Jesus" or "under Vishnu" or "under Zeus" or
"under no god" because none of these phrases is religiously neutral. I am
reminded of Ralph Waldo Emerson's observation that, "A foolish consistency
is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and
philosophers and divines." After this ruling we could add, "and little

To enforce this kind of logical consistency would lead to ridiculous
attempts to control human behavior. For example, the president is a
government official whose salary is paid by tax dollars. Are we going to
arrest him the next time he closes a speech with a perfunctory "God bless

"Under God" is so open-ended that it could be understood by the person
saying the pledge as any concept of a "higher power." A person who objects
to the phrase can simply become mute while these two words are said, or can
refuse to say the pledge at all. 

The Supreme Court long ago wisely ruled that no one could be compelled to
say the pledge. By the logic of this ruling, it would be unconstitutional to
read the Declaration of Independence aloud in school to celebrate the Fourth
of July or to sing "America the Beautiful." As Ferdinand Fernandez, the
dissenting judge in the ruling, said, "under God" does not establish a state
religion "except in the fevered eye of persons who most fervently would like
to drive all tincture of religion out of public life."
# # #
*Macdonald is pastor of Broad Street United Methodist Church in Mooresville,
Commentaries provided by United Methodist News Service do not necessarily
represent the opinions or policies of UMNS or the United Methodist Church.

United Methodist News Service
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