Strict constructionists of the Constitution annoy me. They tend to be farther to the right than I feel comfortable. When confronting a 21st century issue, strict constructionists harken back to what the original writers thought. This deference for the past doesn't seem to be a workable solution for present problems. After all, back then we lived in an agrarian society that saw nothing wrong with slavery or the second class status of women. I don't want people with that worldview having a veto over possible solution to current problems.
While preparing for my Religion in America class at the University of St. Francis, the TV hummed in the background as I worked at the computer. Suddenly, the numbing background noise of the program was broken by an announcer with a news alert, "Court declares the Pledge of Allegiance unconstitutional!" While the announcer gasped for air having made this shocking announcement, I merely smiled. I just love it when I can use current events in teaching my college classes. This particular class had just spent time on the concept of the separation of church and state. It is one of those notions dearly held by most, but, when applied to a particular situation, the application of non-interference is condemned as unnecessary and even un-American.
The court found the phrase "under God" to be unconstitutional because of the separation issue. I recalled when the phrase was added in 1954 during Eisenhower's presidency; I had to practice saying the Pledge with the new words so that my elementary class could get up to speed with the amended Pledge. This addition took place before most of my college students were even born.
Knowing that my students in classroom discussion would bring up this issue, I wanted to familiarize myself with the history of the Pledge of Allegiance before 1954. Within a matter of moments on the Internet, I learned some interesting things about the Pledge. It was written by the Reverend Francis Bellamy in August 1892 and used on Columbus Day later that year. He wanted a unifying statement for all America. In the wake of the Cold War, McCarthyism, and the threat of nuclear war, Eisenhower signed legislation adding "under God" to the Pledge, because it seemed like the right thing to do.
What really is the brouhaha all about? Since most of you haven't taken my class, allow me to give you an instant historical overview of the phrase, "under God." Our forefathers were either deists or Protestants. Deists believed that God wound up the universe and then went on sabbatical never to be heard from again. Those that weren't desists were almost entirely Protestant Christians. Therefore, as a strict constructionist, it would be fair to say that our nation was founded by men that had either a deist or Protestant view of God.
Further, our nation would have never been formed had the founding fathers practiced what they put in the Constitution. This "one nation under God with liberty and justice for all" didn't really mean that in practice. What it meant was that those founding fathers believed that God had put whites over blacks and males over females. This notion of God's guidance and direction wasn't bad, provided you were both white and male. The problem was that those God-fearing founders used the notion "under God" to mean either the deist or Protestant view. That didn't cause much trouble back then because everyone who believed in God was either deists or Protestants. In the two hundred and twenty-six years since its founding, our nation has changed radically. Our nation is very pluralistic. Women and slaves are free, and we have the greatest diversity of religions than any nation on earth. You name a religion; you can find followers in the States. Therefore, can we impose deist or Protestant notions of God upon all the rest?
Now, I know that it is irritating to have someone stick his finger in our eye on an issue like the separation of church and state. Over the past half century, we have had to deal with civil rights and the liberation of women. In addition, other fondly held issues like school prayer and Bible reading in the classroom, nativity scenes in public venues, slogans on coins, etc. have caused hurt and alarm. However, instead of getting mad at those that raise the issue, we need to correct the cause of their poking at us. If we were truly religious and Constitutionalists, we would have kept the church out of state issues in the first place.
Martin Luther King made me look at my views on civil rights. I wasn't up to speed at the beginning and didn't like thinking that some of my views were racist. Then Gloria Steinem and other women poked their fingers in my face over equality of the sexes. Here again, I didn't like being told that I was wrong, but I was.
We never seem to learn. Those early Protestants and deists came to these shores for many reasons including religious freedom. They didn't like being forced to believe what the Crown of England believed. They came here to be free to believe what they wanted to believe without being forced to conform to the notion of the majority.
Today, America is celebrating its independence from England centuries ago. The English made minorities conform to the dominant religious view of the time. The founding fathers wanted a nation to be inclusive of differing beliefs without forcing all to buy into the majority view. How inclusive will we be has been discussed for centuries-just a little inclusive or really pluralistic. I opt for the latter. Happy 4th of July.