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Church, State, and School

June 27, 2002

Which are crazier: liberals or conservatives?

The question is forced on us anew by the latest flap over the Pledge of Allegiance. A Federal appeals court in San Francisco (where else?) has ruled that the words under God, added to the Pledge by an act of Congress in 1954, are unconstitutional. They amount, says the court, to an official endorsement of monotheism, in violation of “the wall of separation between church and state.”

But the phrase wall of separation between church and state isn’t in the U.S. Constitution. It was coined by Thomas Jefferson, who also referred to “God” in such official state documents as the Declaration of Independence, the reading of which in public schools would presumably violate the Constitution too, by the logic of the San Francisco judges. So, in fact, would every oath of office taken on a Bible by public officials, including these judges themselves.

Once again the Constitution has been treated as a “living document” by the ineffable Federal judiciary, which keeps surprising us by discovering novel meanings in old texts. It always turns out that our ancestors didn’t realize what they were saying. We need modern liberals to explain their words to us.

Politicians of both parties are scrambling to denounce the ruling. You can almost forgive conservative Republicans, who at least pay lip-service to the principle that, as Lincoln put it, “the intention of the law-giver is the law.” But liberal Democrats are proving themselves brazen hypocrites: they favor filling the judiciary with just the sort of judges who issue these crazy rulings, while they obstruct the confirmation of judges they suspect of interpreting the Constitution strictly.

Still, let us remember that the author of the new Pledge decision was a Nixon appointee; for that matter, many of the most indefensible judicial opinions have been written by Republican appointees. Neither party is a reliable guardian of the Constitution.

[Breaker quote: How to bring peace to education]But conservatives treat the Pledge itself as if it were a founding, authoritative, and virtually sacred document of the Republic. It is not. It was written late in the nineteenth century — by a socialist, if memory serves — and the words one nation, indivisible were meant to indoctrinate children with the idea that no state may withdraw from the Union.

What other purpose does the Pledge really serve? It teaches an unreflective loyalty to the government, rather than an intelligent attachment to the principles of the Constitution. The Constitution never speaks of the United States as a single and monolithic “nation.” It always refers to them in the plural. There is a reason for this, but most Americans have forgotten it. Even Lincoln sometimes spoke of the United States as a “confederacy.”

Tellingly enough, liberals don’t seem to mind instilling mindless obedience to the Federal Government into young children, as long as “God” is kept out of it. The words under God are the only redeeming part of the Pledge, since they remind us that the United States is answerable to him whom Jefferson called “God,” the “Creator,” the “Infinite Power,” and the “Supreme Judge of the world.”

The father who brought this case to court is an atheist who objected to his daughter’s being pressured to participate in a ritual that smacked of religion. Leaving the Constitution aside, he had a point. The ritual was sponsored by schools supported with his tax money. To most people this may seem innocuous; but he insisted that there’s a principle at stake.

And so there is. Jefferson also said it’s tyrannical to force a man to support principles he finds repugnant. By the same token, other parents may rightfully object to supporting schools that exclude all mention of God, except in profanity. Which side shall prevail?

The solution is so obvious that it hardly occurs to anyone: the total separation of school and state. Tax-supported schools should not exist. The government should have no say at all in the formation of children’s minds. Education should be a purely private matter, left to parents and those who want to support them voluntarily. That way we could avoid endless and irresolvable quarrels about the Pledge, religion, sex education, phonics, the New Math, “values,” and all the rest.

Never mind that private schools outperform state schools and that home schooling beats them both. This is a matter of right and principle, not of what (according to the state) “works.”

Joseph Sobran

Copyright © 2002 by the Griffin Internet Syndicate,
a division of Griffin Communications
This column may not be reprinted in print or
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