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Not having to see yourself for what you are: Politics without mirrors

by Robert Garmong, Ph.D., Philosophy


The Supreme Court case concerning the Pledge of Allegiance reveals the hostility of both the Right and Left to individual rights and the First Amendment.


In a current Supreme Court case, Michael Newdow has challenged the constitutionality of reading the Pledge of Allegiance in public schools. Newdow, an atheist, argues that the pledge’s reference to America as “one nation, under God,” constitutes governmental establishment of religion. The Bush administration counters that the pledge is “a patriotic exercise, not a religious testimonial,” and should be allowed.

This might seem to be a trivial case. But as part of a “culture war” between the religious Right and the secular Left, it has taken on an ominous significance. Both sides have demonstrated naked hostility to the independent mind: the Right, by its desire to force school-aged children to profess religious belief; the Left, by its demands for governmental support for secular ideas.

The First Amendment established what Thomas Jefferson termed a “wall of separation” between Church and State—a deliberate break with the then-standard European practice of establishing an official church by governmental edict and supporting it by taxes. The purpose of Church/State separation was to protect the right to disagree in matters of religion: to ensure that the power of the government would never be used to force a person to profess or support a religious idea he does not agree with. Government officials may make, as individuals, whatever religious pronouncements they wish, but they may not use the power of the government to promote their ideas.

On religion or any other topic, an individual’s ideas are the matter of his own mind, decided by the application (or misapplication) of his own rational faculty. To force a man to adhere to a particular doctrine is to subvert the very faculty that makes real agreement possible and meaningful, and thereby to paralyze the mechanism for recognizing truth. The kind of forced “agreement” obtained by governmental edict is every bit as meaningless as was the Iraqis’ “love” for Saddam.

Yet it is precisely this kind of forced agreement that the political Right seeks, through its support of religion. The Pledge of Allegiance is a perfect example: in 1954, when Congress replaced its original language, “one nation indivisible” with “one nation, under God,” then-President Eisenhower expressed pride that “millions of our school children will daily proclaim in every city and town, every village and rural schoolhouse, the dedication of our nation and our people to the Almighty.” This can only mean the attempt to demand religious agreement by the power of the government, which means ultimately “agreement” at gunpoint. Whether this premise is implemented by means of a nativity scene on public property, prayer in public schools, or the Ten Commandments in a public courthouse, government is dictating the contents of the individual’s mind.

The political Left has properly condemned governmental support of religious ideas, but at the same time, it demands that taxpayers support secular ideas via a number of agencies such as the National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities. If the Right’s attempt to impose religion by force is destructive of intellectual freedom, the Left’s demand that taxpayers support their ideas is also contemptuous of the intellect. Liberals do not care whether you or I in fact agree with or approve of the ideas and images our tax dollars support—be they the latest collection of paint splotches or a Madonna smeared with elephant dung—just as long as we hand over our taxes. Thus, our minds have been rendered irrelevant, our agreement or disagreement pointless, as long as we serve as cash cows for the “artist” or “intellectual” to exploit.

Conservatives, who properly argue against public support for secular ideas, endorse the use of publicly funded institutions to promote religious ideas. Liberals, who properly object to religious displays on public property, advocate public funding for their pet ideas. It’s politics without mirrors: each group feels free to attack its opponents for violating rights, as long as they don’t have to notice that they are committing the exact same crime.

This so-called “Culture War” is actually a war against the individual mind. It is a particularly dirty kind of war, with both sides of the political spectrum vying for the right to enslave the minds of legally disarmed victims, and to do it by means of money expropriated from the victims themselves.

The only way to end this war is to re-assert the First Amendment, with its guarantee of intellectual freedom. And the only way to do that is to get government out of the business of supporting ideas.

Robert Garmong, Ph.D. in philosophy, is a writer for the Ayn Rand Institute in Irvine, Calif. Send reactions to



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