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Liberty and justice under Who?
Opinion by David J. Raymond, Opinion editor emeritus

The recent decision of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to determine unconstitutional the inclusion of the words, “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance has ignited a heated debate in this country over possible implications and ramifications.

Yet, as is usually the case with issues that excite more emotion than thought, the particulars have become lost amidst the rhetoric.

For example, the ruling was made not by the entire court but rather by a three-judge review panel and was put on hold the following day pending a decision by the entire court. Thus, the decision itself has no legal power.

Given the political backlash and the dubious legal standing of the plaintiff, it is entirely likely that the decision will be overturned. At the same time however, courts are traditionally reluctant to rebuff one of their own. About all that is certain is that whatever decision is made will be appealed.

This of course, begs the question: Just how big a deal is the inclusion (or exclusion) of the words “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance? There are those who argue that the use of this phrase does not constitute an official recognition of religion. Indeed, the word “God” need not be limited to the Christian concept of a supreme deity, but rather can be applied to any monotheistic religion.

Rather, the phrase, like the pledge itself, is merely an appeal to a collective cultural identity, a call for patriotism and loyalty against any deadly if nebulous or amorphous threat—Communism, in the 1950s, when the words were added to the Pledge, terrorism today.

If this argument is to be accepted, though, then the debate over the Pledge of Allegiance is not over the government imposition of religion. Rather, the struggle is the classically American struggle of collectivism versus individuality. The former can be seen throughout the history of this nation, in the ability to absorb (and occasionally, exterminate) peoples of diverse languages, cultures, customs, and beliefs and, over the course of generations, assimilate them into the American cultural landscape.

Although the process itself was often marred by fear, prejudice, and even violence, this society has proven itself surprisingly resilient and adaptive, regularly becoming more than the sum of its parts, yet still remaining “American.”

Of course, this works because America is also a nation of individuals. By their very nature, some of these, for any number of reasons, are unable or unwilling to completely conform to the conventions and “dictates” of society. Ironically, they too are a part of the American cultural identity, becoming the mythical frontiersman, explorer, cowboy, test pilot, often seen as and often acting as guardians of American society but also often doomed never to be a part of it.

More recently, they have become the entrepreneur, the innovator, even the celebrity. They are idolized by society as the epitome of American virtue and character.

It is a strange and not always harmonious dichotomy, as witnessed by the swift response of the American politician, whose command of simple mathematics is sufficient enough to realize which side of their elective bread is buttered.

Yet, even as our “leaders” fall all over themselves kowtowing to the vagaries of public opinion, there exists the Constitution, which above all else protects the integrity of the individual. Granted, not every individual acts in a manner worthy of emulation. For every hero, there is a villain; for every altruist, there is a shameless opportunist. Still, all are protected; not only from the government but from society as well.

That does not mean that the Pledge of Allegiance should be prohibited in public schools. It remains a statement of affinity and unity that, while it does little to deter the ambitions of our enemies, does provide a sense of unity, and thus security, to society as a whole, not an inconsequential gesture, given the many problems, both external and internal, which confront us.

Yet, it is unreasonable to require an individual to choose between participating and protesting in order for the sake of what is, in essence, a ritual with little importance beyond the ceremonial.
Perhaps a more telling show of defiance to our enemies would be by demonstrating tolerance and understanding, by acknowledging that it is possible to dissent without dividing, that individuality does not weaken, but strengthens. An appeal to the whole should not be made at the expense of the individual, even an obnoxious one.



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