One Nation, Divisible
Last month, the 9th US Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that it is unconstitutional to require schoolchildren to recite the Pledge of Allegiance, due to the phrase "one nation, under God." Shortly thereafter, it stayed the decision, and it is widely expected that the Supreme Court will overturn the case. The court's ruling was widely unpopular in both houses of Congress, generating such senatorial statements as "This decision is nuts, just nuts," and "If this decision is not overturned, we will amend the Constitution." Senate Chaplain Lloyd Ogilvie declared, "We acknowledge the separation of sectarianism and state, but affirm the belief that there is no separation between God and state," for which he was lauded by the Senate Majority Leader, Tom Daschle. While I know that many, if not most, Americans soundly agree with the strong support for the retention of the "under God" wording, I can't help but feel a profound discomfort with the idea, and, since I am an atheist, just a bit of worry for my own future.
Now, don't get me wrong. I firmly believe in the rights of all people to hold and practice whatever beliefs or religions they like, so long as they do not harm other people. (Oh sure, I might argue with people that disagree with me, but I still believe that they should be allowed to have such beliefs.) You can't take people's beliefs away from them. Not only is it impossible, but it is pointless and cruel. However, embedded within that statement of my opinions, is the idea that people do not need to belong to monotheistic religions, or any religions at all.
The First Amendment states, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." That last part is known as the Free Exercise Clause. Part of the established interpretation of that clause is that "government may not penalize or discriminate against an individual or a group of individuals because of their religious views nor may it compel persons to affirm any particular beliefs." That was taken from the Analysis and Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States of America, which was prepared by the Library of Congress. That seems to pretty much sum it up, to my mind. And yet, despite that interpretation, we have people like George Bush, Sr. saying, "No, I don't know that atheists should be considered as citizens, nor should they be considered patriots. This is one nation under God." Even though the 6th Article of the Constitution states that "no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States," we have people like George Bush, Jr., saying that he intends to appoint "judges who understand that our rights were derived from God."
What about the hundreds of Buddhist Japanese-Americans that were wounded or killed during World War II as part of the 442nd RCT (the most highly decorated unit in American history for its size and length of service), to say nothing of those non-Christian soldiers in subsequent and present wars? Are they no longer to be considered patriots, much less citizens? What about some of the founders of our great nation, like Jefferson or Paine, who, although they believed in God, rejected organized religion? What about people like me, who aside from being born and raised here by parents who were born and raised here, not only contribute to America through our jobs, but also hold the American ideal (read that as freedom) in our hearts? I guess I can't speak for anyone other than myself, but I feel neither represented nor protected by a government that has neither understanding nor compassion for people like me. What makes our country great is that all people, regardless of race, religion, financial status or country of origin, have the same rights and freedoms under the law. That despite our differences, we can all be a part of something great (ever wondered what "E Pluribus Unum" means?). So rather than seeing this as an attempt to take something away from anyone (it's not, it's just saying that schoolkids shouldn't be required to say two words that weren't even in there 50 years ago), try to take this opportunity to understand that we aren't all the same, and that, rather than a weakness, this is a strength.
[Editor's Note: It's been pointed out to me that the phrase "E Pluribus Unum" actually refers to the union of the original thirteen colonies, and that applying it as I have done in this piece is a stretch. I'll let my wording stand as is, having noted the actual origins of the phrase; changing it at this point would feel dishonest to me.]