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Monday, June 14, 2004

One Nation, Under God, At Least for the Foreseeable Future 

Growing up Jewish in Tulsa, Oklahoma, I found myself in a lot of uncomfortable situations involving the word "Jesus." Beyond the regular conversations with my peers about why I didn't believe in Jesus (or once, memorably, about why I had killed him), various authority figures were constantly trying to make me pray to the guy.

Once, at Boy Scout camp (yeah, yeah, make fun all you like), I was berated by an adult leader from some rural troop for not attending a chapel service. I had been excused from attendance by my own troop's leaders, but was somehow forced not only to attend the next day's service but to lead a prayer. After deciding not to give a solo rendition of the Sh'ma (boy do I wish I'd tried that!), I settled on a hastily mumbled plea for general blessings and good weather as the best possible option. I blurted out my ad-libbed prayerlet, and sat down. The aforementioned hayseed leader jumped up, pulled me out of my seat, and admonished me "we pray in Jesus's name!"

Unsurprisingly, the subject of Jesus and praying to him came up at public school as well. In 4th Grade, I blurted something like "God, that's stupid!" to one of my friends during art class. I was overheard by the teacher, Mrs. Looney, who directed me to ask Jesus for forgiveness for taking the Lord's name in vain. I don't remember how I responded (I remember my little revenge fantasy, but not what I actually did), but I do remember being completely mortified and the humiliation I felt in trying to explain why I wouldn't ask Jesus for anything to a visibly unimpressed Mrs. Looney.

I was less traumatized (but at least as self-righteously pissed-off) in high school when track and cross-country events in my public high-school league were preceded by prayers (with the occasional effort made to enforce head-bowing) or when one of the coaches decided that converting one of the "chosen people" to Christianity would really get him in good with God.

Why am I reciting all these Jesus-related slights and annoyances? I'm not asking for sympathy: I'm just trying to establish my bona fides when it comes to understanding what's at stake when authority figures at publicly-funded institutions force kids to participate in religious activities that violate their families' beliefs. I know what it feels like.

That being said, I'm actually completely unconcerned, or maybe even relieved, about today's Supreme Court action voiding a prior decision regarding the phrase "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance. In case you've missed the news, the court actually decided to reject the case on a legal technicality (the plaintiff didn't have standing because of a pending child-custody dispute) rather than to address the underlying constitutionality of the complaint.

And I say "Thank Jesus."

Not because I think this is a good decision, legally: I am more or less a complete ignoramus on the legal implications. Not because I think this is a good decision, philosophically: In the best of all possible worlds, no one would have added "under God" to the pledge in the first place, and I completely understand not only why an atheist would object to the phrase, but how being forced to take part in uttering this line could make a vigorously non-believing kid feel.

The reason I'm happy about the Supreme Court's ruling is simply because of short- to medium-term political considerations. If the court had upheld the ruling, we would have witnessed a fund-raising shitstorm for right-wing causes and candidates, and in all likelihood, some poorly-drafted constitutional amendment getting floor consideration in Congress. Sen. James Inhofe (about whom I had this to say) explained his recipe for GOP success in the 1994 elections as "God, gays and guns." Two of the elements of this unholy trinity have already been invoked this election year, with the assault weapons ban and gay marriage making headlines. Frankly, these are simply vastly more important issues than the Pledge of Allegiance.

Ultimately, I wasn't deeply scarred by my childhood exposure to the enforcement arm of the Christian faith. I don't look forward to seeing my own daughter fight these battles, and I deeply hope that someday America's citizens will recognize what is gained for the nation by a strict application of the Establishment Clause. But ya gotta pick your battles. And on this one the cost/benefit ratio isn't too appealing.

There are all sorts of manufactured kulturkampf battles in contemporary US political discourse. The right has managed to elevate "partial birth abortion" and Ten Commandments plaques into issues upon which every candidate for office must take a position. God bless you, ACLU, but on the Pledge of Allegiance, God bless legal technicalities.

UPDATE: Read more blogospheric commentary here, here, here, here, here, here, here here, here, and here.

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