If we look at all of the issues that we could devote time and energy to – child abuse, global warming, AIDS, malaria, Iraq, illegal drugs, national deficit, medical costs, Bird Flu, stem cell research, and countless other issues – is the issue of 'under God' in the Pledge really that important?
First, I want to point out how many things we do with our time that are even less important - like watching Survivor or some sporting event, playing computer games, or going out to dinner. There are certainly some things for which this issue is more important.
Yet, compared to many of the things listed in the irst paragraph, this issue is not important – except to the atheist child who might want to grow up to become President or a legislator, become a judge, or join the military and be promoted for the quality of his service. It is not important, except for the child whose classmates are being taught by the school to look down on children who do not support 'one nation under God'.
However, this issue gains some importance because it has effects on many of the other issues that are more important. This issue has instrumental value.
Atheists as Decision Makers
When we look at these other, greater concerns, one question we should ask is, "How are we going to address those other concerns, and who gets to decide?" One of the effect of 'under God' in the pledge is that, before a person is allowed to sit among the decision makers, that person has to pass a test. He must first prove that he is willing to pledge allegiance to 'one nation under God'. Those not willing to offer such a pledge can only sit in the sidelines and, perhaps, offer suggestions to the decision makers. He will never be a decision maker himself.
I reject the proposition that atheism is a virtue. Being an atheist does not automatically make one a better person. However, this does not imply that there is no injustice in excluding atheists from the set of decision makers. There is nothing about being black that implies that blacks are better decision makers. Yet, this does not imply that there is no injustice in excluding blacks from the table of decision makers.
Even when it comes to testimony delivered from the sidelines, 'under God' and 'In God We Trust' tells people that testimony from those who pledge allegiance to 'one nation under God' deserves more weight than testimony from those who do not share this view.
Recall Illinois representatives Monica Davis' rant against atheists from her seat in the Illinois legislature.
It's dangerous to the progression of this state. And it's dangerous for our children to even know that your philosophy exists! You have no right to be here! We believe in something. You believe in destroying! You believe in destroying what this state was built upon.
Do you think that somebody like that cares at all about what any atheist tells her on any issue (so long as she knows that the person speaking is an atheist)? Let's not pretend that her attitude is in any way rare. Though some in the atheist community (and a few outside of it) expressed outrage, they were not so outraged that they forced her to apologize to the atheist community or to retract her statements.
The message that atheism is intrinsically unpatriotic - that patriotism requires a level of support for 'one nation under God' that no atheist can give - implies that atheists are not only unqualified for public office, but are unqualified to offer advice to those who hold public office.
The truth of the matter is that some atheists are able to give well informed and wise advice on some of these issues. The nation puts them in the category of unpatriotic citizens worthy only of being ignored at its peril. Banning a person from the decision-making table and ignoring her advice from the sidelines merely because she is an atheist puts everybody at a disadvantage. It costs the society the opportunity to adopt some very good solutions to some very important problems.
The second way the Pledge problem relates to some of these other problems is that several of these issues have to do with questions of justice and injustice - the same question that applies to the practice of putting 'under God' in the Pledge and of adopting 'In God We Trust' as the national motto.
"Is it morally permissible for a government to adopt a national pledge that denigrates a set of peaceful and law-abiding citizens by equating them to those who oppose liberty and justice for all?" Allowing the Pledge of Allegiance to stand as it is implies saying that these types of acts are permissible - that they are not to be opposed. Saying that these types of acts are permissible implies that all other countries have the option of adopting practices that aim to promote public hostility against a peaceful and law-abiding group of its citizens. This will not make the world a better place.
America cannot honestly expect to promote a global culture in which religious minorities are treated with respect when it has risen religious bigotry to the status of a national pledge and a national motto. Around the world, conflicts between groups are made worse - not better - by the doctrine that nations can adopt injustice and bigotry as its greatest principles and highest standards.
America cannot condemn a country that demands a pledge of allegiance to Sharia law, for example, without making itself into a nation of hypocrites, if it demands allegiance to 'one nation under God'.
Lessons from History
Some argue that atheists are not treated all that badly in America today (in spite of these injustices), and so nothing needs to be done about it. However, we could also argue that women were not treated all that badly in the years before they were allowed to have a place at the table of decision makers. Perhaps, 100 years ago, we should have listened to those who said that women's rights was simply not a legitimate concern and attention should be given to other things, because women were not being treated badly enough to take women's suffrage seriously.
Japanese Americans were not being treated all that badly in the 1920s. Yet, their position quickly deteriorsted several years later. It deteriorated precisely because people were not devoted to the principles of justice as they should have been. If the people of today are not seriously committed to the principles of justice, what will they be capable of in the future?
Demanding that people live by the principles of fairness and justice today helps to protect people - including our children and grandchildren - tomorrow. Similarly, allowing individuals to get away with abuses and injustices today puts future generations at risk that these injustices will find a new target, or they might wander into an area already being targeted.
When Rosa Parks refused to move to the back of the bus, it was possible for people to complain then that her concern with walking another fifteen feet to the back of the bus was trivial and unimportant. Whats the issue of moving to the back of the bus compared with concerns like nuclear war and polio? Are we really going to make a big deal over the fact that some people have to give up seats in a bus from time to time when we have to deal with these other issue?
However, this description trivializes what was at issue with segregation. The issue was not that of moving to the back of the bus. The issue was the set of assumptions and attitudes that generated and protected the policy of requiring blacks to move to the back of the bus.
The issue with the Pledge is not about whether or not certain people have to say or refrain from saying a pair of words. It has to do with attitudes that say that the government may legitimately teach children to view people who do not believe are to be thought of the same way as those who do not support liberty and justice for all. What is at issue is a principle that, if accepted, would make it permissible for governments to have children pledge allegiance to 'one white nation' or 'one arian nation'.
No government has the right to participate in a campaign to promote hostility against peaceful law-abiding citizens based on qualities not relevant to their patriotism or moral character.
No government has the right to make it the national pledge and the national motto to put barriers between a group of peaceful law-abiding citizens and public offices within that nation or positions of public trust (such as appointed judgeships).
No nation has the right to teach children, starting on the first day of school, that those who do not support 'one nation under God' are as bad as those who do not support 'liberty and justice for all'.
No government has the right to put signs or stamps in its buildings or on its government paper (such as money) that tells its citizens, "You are not to think of a person as one of us unless he trusts in God."
Is it important to say these things?
I think it is.