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From The Secret Service Agent's Slur, To Critiques Of The Ninth Circuit's Pledge Of Allegiance Decision

Thursday, Aug. 01, 2002

When the Secret Service agent scrawled "Islam is Evil. Christ Is King", many Americans recoiled, for obvious reasons. As President Bush has stressed, we are not in a religious war with Islam, but a war on terrorism, whether carried out by radical Islamic sects or others. For a federal agent to make such a blatant assertion of Christocentric dominance was not only repellent in itself, it contradicted that crucial message.

Ironically, however, earlier this summer another assertion of Christocentric dominance received a very different reception from this country. When the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit declared the phrase "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance unconstitutional, the public's response was furious and swift. The same citizens who would later read accounts of the agent's slur with horror and disbelief, insisted on having what amounted to the message "God Is King" repeated in every American classroom by students, who were ordered to do so by teachers hired by the government.

No matter where it appears, government-sponsored Christocentrism, or even religiocentrism, undermines this nation's ideals. Our Constitution both allows religious freedom, and refrains from imposing particular religious beliefs. So should Secret Service agents acting on our government's behalf. And so should public schoolteachers putting across our nation's message of unity and liberty and justice for all.

The Addition of "Under God": A McCarthyite's Power Play

The addition of "under God" was a power play by a 1954, McCarthyite Congress pandering to public fears of "godless" Communism - which not only disapproved of religious belief but in Russia, even made religious practice illegal. The change - the result of a Congress responding to what amount to mobocracy - turned the Pledge on its head. While it had been an endorsement of liberty for everyone, now it embodied the dominant majority's belief that there is a single religious horizon.

Those who denounce the Ninth Circuit's well-reasoned opinion in the Pledge case simply offer us more of the same campaign to enshrine majority religious belief as universal truth imposed upon all. Yet, even in 1954, it was too late to stem the tide of rising religious diversity. It is much too late now.

Still, the majority, though diminished, has not given up - choosing the Pledge as one of many sabers it has rattled in a desperate attempt to hold onto entrenched political power that is now seeping and will continue to seep through its fingers.

Increasing American Religious Diversity Undermines An "Under God" Pledge

American religious diversity used to consist of the universe of Christian denominations; other religions were largely seen as isolated, at the fringe of American culture. Now, however, America's religious diversity encompasses a multiplicity of world religions, from Christianity and Judaism to Hinduism, Islam, and Buddhism, just to mention some of the most mainstream. And of course, America also includes many atheists and agnostics, though they still make up a small fraction of the total population.

The new demographics make "under God" even less defensible now than it was in 1954. They show the phrase for what it is, a power grab by a group that no longer fairly represents the full universe of law-abiding, American religious believers.

The Diverse Foundation for the Constitution

Of course, some of the foundations of this country were drawn from Christian principles. But one must be careful not to claim a purely Christian heritage for the Constitution.

In fact, the Framers borrowed liberally from as many traditions as they knew--not just from the Presbyterians, Calvinists, and Baptists, but also from the ancient Greeks and Romans, pagans though they were, and the English. They used whatever they thought might work as they experimentally combined elements to form a Constitution.

The Need to Draw American Ideas From Many Religions, Not Just One

There is a deep irony in the Pledge debate - a debate over religious dominance, that has manifested itself in a tug of war over "under God." The irony is that the debate may be occurring at the worst possible time in our history.

Fresh ideas from other religions may help us to meet difficult problems, but only if we listen to them. Globalization may require elements of the holistic worldview offered by Hinduism, for example. And those Americans who practice Islam can help the government crucially in the war on terrorism - but the more slurs are voiced against them, and the more they feel under siege themselves, the less they may be willing to do so.

The Framers, pragmatists that they were, would have been eager to accept any ideas that might work, and would have understood, too, that a nation is only as good as the citizens who people it. We, too, must share their eagerness and openness if we expect to be able to adapt to current cataclysmic challenges in world security, trade, and leadership. That is why the single most important phrase in the Pledge is not "under God." It is "liberty and justice for all."

Marci A. Hamilton is the Paul R. Verkuil Chair in Public Law at Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law, Yesniva University. An archive of her columns on religious liberty issues and other issues, including copyright and intellectual property questions, can be found on this site. Her email address is

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