Sunday, March 30, 2008

Imposing on the Majority

In writing the book, A Perspective on the Pledge, I tried to cover the bulk of the arguments used in favor of having ‘under God’ in the Pledge of Allegiance. That is why it became a book – to cover arguments that I could not cover in the original story.

Some of those arguments made it into the book rather late in life, and never appeared in any blog site. One of those arguments concerned the objection that this is a democracy, and atheists (or, in the book, black people) are attempting to force their will on the majority by prohibiting the majority from pledging allegiance to ‘one nation under God’ (or, in the book, ‘one white nation’).

I gave the traditional answer to this that, in addition to majority rule there are certain minority rights where the minority does, in fact, have the right to force its will on the majority. For example, a majority that supports enslaving a minority can never make slavery legitimate. The minority who would be slaves have every right to protest and to ‘impose their will’ (that there be no slavery) on the majority.

Like I said, this is the traditional answer.

Yet, when I looked at the issue through the eyes of Shawn Henry, Shawn thought of a different answer. (I have, quite often, been surprised when, by putting an issue into the eyes of a fictional character, that the character comes up with a perspective that I never thought of.)

Ultimately, Shawn answered:

“Actually, no. I do not want to force my view on the majority. I want the majority to realize that only racist bigots would support such a proposal, and I want the majority to voluntarily decide not to be a bunch of racist bigots.”

Those of us who are identified as unpatriotic and inferior to true Americans in its Pledge and its national motto certainly are under no obligation to beg the majority to treat us as political equals. This is our right – something that we are perfectly within our rights to demand, just as slaves had the right to demand their freedom (regardless of whether they had the political strength to enforce that demand.

However, it is not actually an issue of forcing one’s will on the majority either. This characterization seems to hold the false assumption that the majority has a right to hold their particular opinion, and that there is nothing objectionable to being a part of the majority. To view the abolition of slavery as ‘the minority imposing its will on the majority’ is, in a sense, built on the false assumption that the majority have a right to hold the position that slavery is permissible. It gives the majority some sense of legitimacy as a majority, even if they may not legitimately act on their preference.

In reality, by raising a moral objection against slavery, a person is not saying that the minority has the right to impose its will on the majority. The person who is opposed to slavery is saying that the majority has every right to impose its view on the minority – and the legitimate view that the majority should be imposing on the minority is that slavery is wrong. If the majority instead holds that slavery is permissible, then that is a fault on the majority. They have no right to that position. There is absolutely no legitimacy in being a majority that accepts slavery.

Accordingly, in the case that I discuss in the book, which involves a pledge of allegiance to “one white nation”, I noticed that Shawn was not actually seeking to impose his will on the majority. Shawn was very much in favor of the idea of majority rule. Instead, what Shawn was after was for the majority to see that it was illegitimate to be imposing a pledge of allegiance to ‘one white nation’ on the country. The majority should be a group of people who see that this is wrong, and who are more than eager to impose the view that it is wrong on the minority, standing ready to condemn any person who does, in fact, pledge allegiance to ‘one white nation’.

It is not at all difficult to go from that case of pledging allegiance to ‘one white nation’ to the case of pledging allegiance to ‘one nation under God’. Both statements brand a subset of the community as inferior to their fellow citizens when the state has no legitimate authority to do so. The majority should see this and, after recognizing the injustice of pledging to view a segment of the population as inferior, be more than happy to impose their will on the minority. It’s just that their will should be that governments not have pledges or mottos that brand citizens that have every right to equal treatment before the law as inferiors.

Indeed, the classic way of viewing the objection that atheists are ‘imposing their will on the majority’ is through the assumption that the majority is always right. We can rest assured that if the Christian community know of Christians living within an atheist government, they would certainly be condemning any attempt to hold that Christians are the inferior citizens that need to be kept out of office. They would be demanding equal respect for their Christian brethren, and be ready to condemn any state that has its people pledging allegiance to ‘one nation, free of religious superstition’ or printing, ‘there is no god’ on its money.

In this, the religious majority demonstrates their hypocrisy. They recognize that, at a fundamental level, they know full well that no just and moral people would support such a pledge or a motto. They know that no fair and just people would support a motto that put them at a political disadvantage and they would see the right and the duty to protest any attempt to do so. They know that any talk about the right of the (atheist) majority to impose its will on the (theist) minority simply misses the point that the majority has such a right only insofar as its actions are fair and just. The majority has no right to impose its will on the minority when the majority has abandoned fairness and justice.

When the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals releases its decision on ‘under God’ and ‘In God We Trust’, we can expect to hear and read a great many people claiming about how this is a democracy and how the minority are trying to impose its will on the majority. We will be hearing a great many people saying that the minority, in virtue of the fact that they are the minority, should simply sit down and shut up and accept the dictates of the majority.

We can expect to hear a few people protest that majority rule needs to be weighed against minority rights. Yet, when this objection is raised against the Pledge, the defenders of ‘under God’ will portray the objection to the public in terms of atheists who are offended by the mere mention of God declaring that they have the right to prohibit others from mentioning their beliefs in public. We are trying to ‘drive God out of the public square.’

If we repeat of these tired, old arguments, like listening to an old and familiar song, we should be willing to expect the same tired, old results. The theocratic spin machine will raise a few hundred million dollars to feed a campaign to further portray atheists as un-American, just like the Pledge and the Motto say they are. They will use that money to persuade a substantial majority of the people will continue to see atheists as villains who want nothing other than to prevent Christians from mentioning god, ever, in public.

Empirically minded folks should be able to look at the results generated by the last time ‘under God’ became news, and extrapolate what will happen the next time, unless we decide to adjust a few of the input parameters.

So, writing about Shawn brought to mind a different tactic. Instead of answering the claim that we are trying to force our will on the majority, consider answering as Shawn answered.

I am not seeking to impose my will on the majority. I am seeking to get the majority to understand that a society that values fairness and justice would not have a majority that supports a pledge of allegiance that denigrates and demeans a segment of its population (blacks, in the story; those who do not believe in a god, in the real world). It would not make degrading a segment of its population on the basis of a belief about god a part of its national policy. I am not seeking to impose my will on the majority. I am trying to get the majority to impose a principle of equal respect under the law on itself.

When the defenders of ‘under God’ answer this argument, it will be easy to point out the simple fact, “‘Under God’ was not meant to promote religion in the same way that ‘with liberty and justice for all’ was not meant to promote liberty and justice for all.”

Or, “The Pledge equates Americans who are not under God with those who would support rebellion, tyranny, and injustice. What is that if not a case of the government deliberately demeaning and denigrating a segment of its population that is has no right to denigrate?”

Where, ultimately, the message is, "This is not an issue of a minority imposing its will on the majority. This is an issue of whether the majority is going to decide to do the right think and treat equal citizens with equal respect."


Anonymous said...

I am not sure if you have seen this yet, but it seems relevant:

Student booted from school after refusing to recite Pledge of Allegiance

"Garrett told the Chattanooga Times Free Press that she is a devout Christian and believes she should not pledge her allegiance to anyone but God."

Anonymous said...

It's relevant to note that as soon as the school found out it was because she was a devout christian they immediately reinstated her.

I wonder what they would have done if it was because she was an atheist standing up for her rights.

That's not true, I don't really wonder, I'm pretty sure I already know.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Actually, to be honest, I do not think it is fair to speculate that these people would have treated the case of an atheist differently. That would constitute a presumption of guilt. I prefer a presumption of innocence, where guilt must be proved.

As far as I can tell, she was reinstated when she contacted a lawyer, the school did the same, and the school's lawyer told the school "What you are doing is illegal." The school then decided to conform to the law.

Anonymous said...

Ack, my prejudice brings me shame. You're right, I jumped to the conclusion I expected. :( Thank you for pointing it out.