Politics, Religion

Amen, Mr. Newdow!

Okay, so as mentioned previously, I was pretty excited at the prospect of Michael Newdow arguing over the Constitutionality of “under God” before the Supreme Court, which happened Wednesday. He’s a Doctor with a law degree, though he is not a practicing lawyer. He did the ballsy thing of representing his case himself, and by all accounts, he represented himself, and the rest of us Atheists, quite well. I have a new hero.

The New York Times published excerpts from Wednesdays hearing which are an invigorating read. I’ll excerpt a few excerpts here:

JUSTICE DAVID H. SOUTER: What do you make of this argument? I will assume that if you read the pledge carefully, the reference to under God means something more than a mere description of how somebody else once thought. We’re pledging allegiance to the flag and to the republic. The republic is then described as being under God, and I think a fair reading of that would — would be I think that’s the way the republic ought to be conceived, as under God. So I think — I think there’s some affirmation there. I will grant you that.

What do you make of the argument that in actual practice the affirmation in the midst of this civic exercise as a religious affirmation is so tepid, so diluted then so far, let’s say, from a compulsory prayer that in fact it should be, in effect, beneath the constitutional radar. It’s sometimes, you know the phrase, the Rostow phrase, the ceremonial deism.

What do you make of that argument, even assuming that, as I do, that there is some affirmation involved when the child says this as a technical matter?

MR. NEWDOW: I think that that whole concept goes completely against the ideals underlying the Establishment Clause. We saw in Minersville v. Gobitis and West Virginia v. Barnette something that most people don’t consider to be religious at all to be of essential religious value to those Jehovah’s Witnesses who objected. And for the Government to come in and say, we’ve decided for you this is inconsequential or unimportant is an arrogant pretension, said James Madison. He said in his memorial —

JUSTICE SOUTER: Well, I think the argument is not that the Government is saying, we are defining this as inconsequential for you. I think the argument is that simply the way we live and think and work in schools and in civic society in which the pledge is made, that the — that whatever is distinctively religious as an affirmation is simply lost. It — it’s not that the — that the Government is saying, you’ve got to pretend that it’s lost. The argument is that it is lost, that the religious, as distinct from a civic content, is close to disappearing here.

MR. NEWDOW: And again, I — I don’t mean to go back, but it seems to me that is a view that you may choose to take and the majority of Americans may choose to take, but it doesn’t — it’s not the view I take, and when I see the flag and I think of pledging allegiance, I — it’s like I’m getting slapped in the face every time, bam, you — you know, this is a nation under God, your religious belief system is wrong.

And here, I want to be able to tell my child that I have a very valid religious belief system. Go to church with your mother, go see Buddhists, do anything you want, I love that — the idea that she’s being exposed to other things, but I want my religious belief system to be given the same weight as everybody else’s. And the Government comes in here and says, no, Newdow, your religious belief system is wrong and the mother’s is right and anyone else who believes in God is right, and this Court —

JUSTICE GINSBURG: If you had her here in this courtroom and she stood up when the Justices entered and she heard the words, God save the United States and this honorable Court, wouldn’t the injury that you’re complaining about be exactly the same, so you would have equal standing on your account of things to challenge that as you do to challenge what the school district does here?

MR. NEWDOW: I don’t think the injury would be even close to the same. She’s not being asked to stand up, place her hand on her heart, and say, I affirm this belief, and I think that can easily distinguish this case from all those other situations. Here she is being asked to stand and say that there exists a God. Government can’t ever impose that —

JUSTICE GINSBURG: If she’s asked to repeat or to sing, as the Chief Justice suggested, God Bless America, then she is speaking those words.

MR. NEWDOW: Again, if it were a situation where we said, let’s only do nothing else in this classroom, all right, we’ll say God bless America and let’s just say those words or something, I think that would violate the Constitution as well. If it’s just, let’s sing one song a day and once a month we get God Bless America, no, that would be certainly fine. We don’t want to be hostile to religion.

But here we’re not — it’s not a question of being hostile to religion. It’s indoctrinating children and Congress said that was the purpose.

Amen, Mr. Newdow. On the one hand, if you argue that the phrase “under God” is “ceremonial deism” there are some hard-core pious folk that would take offense at you uttering the name of the Lord without due reverence. To take the Lord’s name without reverence is blashpemy. No good. You can not say that “under God” doesn’t really mean anything, especially when uttering the phrase is anti-thetical to us Atheists.

When I was a child we would stand every morning, place out hands over our hearts, and recite the Pledge of Allegiance. In the ears of every American is a chorus of young schoolchildren drilling on a core belief system every morning. Before it became a bad word, we viewed the pledge as “indoctrination” … repeat these words, and you will come to live by them.

I’ve never been a “religious” person, and the more I thought about it, the less this “under God” business made any sense to me. For years, I’d utter the Pledge of Allegiance, every last word. Every word means something to me … except those two words. I have not come to know God, so who am I to bring it into my pledge of national allegiance? Isn’t that sort of dishonest?

In my youth I was also a Boy Scout. Ostensibly the Boy Scouts of America do not allow Atheists, but none of us really cared so much. One of the Scout Laws that I did stumble on was that a Scout is Reverent. What is Reverence? Well, the “Boy Scout Handbook” explained that Reverence is respect for God, and respect for the belief systems of others. Well, what do I know about God? Nothing. I do know that other people make a very big deal out of their professed knowledge of God. I concluded that, for these purposes, I was an Atheist. I could respect God by not making false pronouncements about it, and I could respect others by not giving them a hard time about their beliefs. Reverence achieved.

Eventually I’d drop that phrase, those two words, from my daily recitations. It wasn’t that I was rejecting God so much as I could not profess — I could not make a false claim — to its nature and its relationship with my nation. To do so would be impious, irreverent, and dishonest with regards to my own belief system.

To see the mentality … the theocratic bigotry, if you will, from out nations leaders, we can turn to Justice Breyer:

JUSTICE BREYER: So it’s not perfect, it’s not perfect, but it serves a purpose of unification at the price of offending a small number of people like you. So tell me from ground one why — why the country cannot do that?

MR. NEWDOW: Well, first of all, for 62 years this pledge did serve the purpose of unification and it did do it perfectly. It didn’t include some religious dogma that separated out some —

… Again, the Pledge of Allegiance did absolutely fine and with — got us through two world wars, got us through the Depression, got us through everything without God, and Congress stuck God in there for that particular reason, and the idea that it’s not divisive I think is somewhat, you know, shown to be questionable at least by what happened in the result of the Ninth Circuit’s opinion. The country went berserk because people were so upset that God was going to be taken out of the Pledge of Allegiance.

Now, I’m really proud of Michael Newdow here for not losing his cool in the face of … well, whatever that was. He pulled us right to the point — we got along perfectly well without those words, without alienating “a small number of people” like me. So, if someone points out, however politely, that this imposition is … well .. kind of rude, right? Does Religion teach us to be rude? To belittle the beliefs of others? If so, then that might explain why a few of us avoid religion.

Now, here is perhaps the one highlight you may have heard from the whole exchange:

CHIEF JUSTICE REHNQUIST: Do we know — do we know what the vote was in Congress apropos of divisiveness to adopt the under God phrase?

MR. NEWDOW: In 1954?


MR. NEWDOW: It was apparently unanimous. There was no objection. There’s no count of the vote.

CHIEF JUSTICE REHNQUIST: Well, that doesn’t sound divisive.


MR. NEWDOW: That’s only because no atheist can get elected to public office.


CHIEF JUSTICE REHNQUIST: The courtroom will be cleared if there’s any more clapping. Proceed, Mr. Newdow.

On NPR, Nina Totenberg reported that “those words provoked an amazing reaction from the courtroom — applause from spectators.” I later read in the Chicago Tribune:

When Newdow said the vote was unanimous, the chief justice responded, “That doesn’t sound divisive.” Newdow shot back with a quick rejoinder: “That’s only because no atheist can get elected to public office.” The remark prompted laughter and applause from his supporters in the courtroom.

Now, I cast a wide net on Google News and haven’t been able to corroborate the claim that it was Atheists cheering this assertion. I read that applause the other way, that the religious folk in the audience were cheering against Newdow, though a lot of articles imply that his supporters were cheering a particularly witty, if depressing comeback. I found the Tribune piece re-hashed in the Salt Lake Tribune with a different by-line. I found the following elaboration at law.com:

That triggered applause from the audience, which is almost never heard in the Supreme Court chamber. It was unclear whether the applause was for Newdow’s rejoinder or for the fact that atheists don’t get elected, but in any event Rehnquist angrily admonished the audience that the courtroom would be cleared if any more clapping occurred.

As the courtroom settled down, Newdow resumed his attack, telling the Court that, in fact, eight states still have laws against atheists holding office — another point that an advocate other than Newdow might not have made.

At any rate, the treatment of the outburst triggered a brief missive from my Hiptop to the Chicago Tribune, who have not responded:

Is this accurate? I recall hearing about this on NPR yesterday and interpreting that the Theists in the audience were applauding the assertion that an atheist could not get elected to public office. I don’t see why an Atheist would cheer such a depressing assertion.

If Mr. Neikirk got this detail wrong he might wish to apologise to your Atheist readers, because in his telling of the story it was an audience of rowdy, cynical, smarmy Atheists disrupting the court proceedings. If he was right then I must make amends for assuming that the court was filled with disruptive, Theist bigots cheering at such a dark notion in an effort to crush one brave, lonely dissenting citizen as he stood before our government, asking them to change two little words that trample on his religious freedom.

Heck, let’s just figure it was a few rowdy Atheists and their detractors.

Mr Newdow? A final word?

I’m hoping the Court will uphold this principle so that we can finally go back and have every American want to stand up, face the flag, place their hand over their heart and pledge to one nation, indivisible, not divided by religion, with liberty and justice for all.

Amen, Mr. Newdow.


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