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The two words that don't belong


By David Hetterick

In memoriam: Dave Hetterick, our former web site manager, died in October 2004. This is a reprint of an article he had published in the Minneapolis Star Tribune as an op-ed editorial on
15 November 2003.
WW2 patriotic postcard
World War II patriotic postcard shows the Pledge as it appeared in the 1940s. From the collection of Dean Borghorst, Minneapolis. Reprinted with permission.

In late June [2003] a three-judge panel from the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the phrase "under God" was "an impermissible government endorsement of religion."

Predictably every politician from the president of the country to small town mayors went crazy. This response reflected the extreme Christian fundamentalism that has permeated both political and private life in our country in the last few years.

It is worth noting that the decision challenged only the two words, "under God."

In no way was the pledge itself rejected. Many Americans confuse the worship of God (their own of course) with patriotism. President Bush called the ruling "out of step with the traditions and history of America." But then, his dad once said that "nonbelievers can't be considered citizens or patriots. This is one nation under God." Apparently, neither Bush knows his history any better than his constitutional law.

"One nation under God" is not and was not the founding motto of this country. Members of Congress need only look up to the Great Seal of the Nation and the Statue of Freedom atop the Capitol Building. There they will find the original national motto, E Pluribus Unum (Out of Many, One).

It was handed down to us by Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and Samuel Adams.

It was an affirmation of pluralism and diversity, of a people united under a standard of religiously neutral civil government. Unfortunately, it was also in Latin and not understood by many.

The Pledge of Allegiance was written in 1892 by Francis Bellamy, a Baptist minister forced from his church because of his socialist activities. It contained no mention of God.

It stayed that way for 62 years until 1954 when Congress, reacting to a campaign by the Knights of Columbus, inserted the two words. As then President Eisenhower put it: "From this day forward, millions of school children will daily proclaim the dedication of our nation and our people to the Almighty."

Most people reading this are probably thinking "so what's wrong with that?" What's wrong is that the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the US Constitution says "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion."

This is the issue, not the second or Free Exercise clause. Even if the present decision is upheld, anyone will be free to say the Pledge any way they want. All you religious folk have nothing to worry about, at least if you're a Christian. I'm not so sure about Jews, Muslims or anyone else.

I'm worried about myself and other members of what is probably this country's largest silent minority, atheists. Recent numbers suggest we may be as much as 15% of the US population. Rarely, however, do we come out of the closet to defend our rights. It may be time to do so.

When the recent decision was announced, the media reported death threats against nonbelievers. There were reports of public cheering. The courts have ruled in favor of minorities be-fore. African Americans, Native Americans, Jehovah's Witnesses, Jews, Mormons, homosexuals and the handicapped are just a few of the minorities that have benefited from judicial protection.

If the vast majority of nonbelievers stays in the closet, we will have no one to blame but our-selves if we lose whatever freedom from religion we had. In the meantime, let's hope that the death threats are not acted upon.

The ruling of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals will not stand. If it isn't overturned by the Supreme Court, the Congress will pass a Constitutional Amendment to circumvent the Bill of Rights. Pres. Bush will sign it to the cheers of the multitudes. Another victory for the tyranny of the majority theocracy.

Most of you won't care this time. What you might want to think about, however, is whose civil rights will be thrown out next time.