Sunday, March 21, 2010

The Pledge of Allegiance Debate

3/21/2010—As readers of this blog may be aware, last Friday I posted a full response on Huffington Post to Victor Bernard’s Post-Gazette op-ed. The response was very strong and largely negative. I learned two important lessons in this round on this recurrent issue.

First, atheists insist that God can only mean the supernatural deity described in the Bible. Naturally, from this premise, the Pledge is unconstitutional. Atheists make this assertion despite the fact that liberal believers have been arguing for over a hundred years that God for them means something else and despite the fact that the word God has functioned in different ways in our own political history—standing for the objectivity of values and natural rights, for example.

This insistence on a narrow story is eerily similar what the religious right would say. They also would assert that God means God in the Pledge.

These two sides are together blocking the emergence of something new, whether that something turns out to be a new kind of nonsupernatural religion that evolves out of the biblical tradition or a more open secularism that sees wisdom in traditional religious language. The two sides are keeping us in a box.

Sam Tanenhaus echoes this Pledge story in his Week in Review article in today’s NY Times. He makes the point that histories of the United States now tend to choose sides in the history culture war debates rather than finding anything like common ground.

But, and this is the second thing I have been learning, there really is common ground and it is not that hard to find. Here is an example of what I mean. Atheists like to assert that there is something like a gap between the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution in that the former refers to “their Creator” as the source of natural rights whereas the Constitution does not mention God, as in The Godless Constitution, by Isaaac Kramnick and R. Laurence Moore.

But there actually is no gap at all. The natural rights of the Declaration of Independence are planted firmly in the Ninth Amendment to the Constitution: “The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.” Natural rights, not the existence of God, was the point in the Declaration as well. Under God in the Pledge can fairly be taken to mean in context, a nation that recognizes the reality of rights versus any positivistic or relativistic or nihilistic conception of political life.

Finally for today, my son Ben was hurt yesterday and will be having outpatient surgery tomorrow. So, Ben, although we hallowed secularists don’t have any prayers to remember you with, in the immortal words of Sarah Palin, you betcha we’re doing the thinking of you thing.

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