A truly patriotic tradition

July 04, 2002|By Ellen Goodman

BOSTON -- Once on the West Coast, I passed a restaurant with a sign proclaiming it was "A Seattle Tradition Since 1976." There was nothing unusual about this boast except that the year was 1982.

I was startled and bemused by a 6-year-old tradition. New Englanders count our traditions in centuries, not seasons.

I remember this today because of the furor over the Pledge of Allegiance that colors this Fourth of July week. Ever since the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that a school Pledge of Allegiance to one nation "under God" is unconstitutional, the air has crackled with political fireworks. Politicians, right and left, Democratic and Republican, have accused the court of attacking a great patriotic tradition.

A patriotic tradition since 1954? Don't any of us remember the pledge before its congressionally imposed godliness at the height of the Cold War? And was it only in Boston, the cradle of liberty, that we learned the name of the author who penned the original in 1892? Francis Bellamy, a socialist and Baptist minister -- yes, you could be both -- had to resign his job after preaching that Jesus was a socialist. Another tradition?

In fact, the court's "untraditional" opinion was as careful as it was controversial. Judge Alfred Goodwin wrote that the description of a nation "under God" was "a profession of a religious belief, namely a belief in monotheism."

Was this reasoning off the constitutional wall? No. Will the ruling, already stayed, be overturned? Probably.

But more remarkably, Judge Goodwin, a minister's son and Nixon appointee, was dismissed as a San Francisco wacko, "stupid," a "pinhead." In record speed, every member of the Senate voted -- profiles in courage all -- for a resolution denouncing the ruling.

How did we get back into arguing about religion in the public square or schoolhouse? This is the first Fourth of July week since we entered the war zone. On Sept. 11, we were attacked by religious fanatics. Americans rallied around the flag of religious pluralism. We prided ourselves in being one nation "indivisible" -- without being homogenous. We counted our secular blessings, patriotically.

But now the religious arguments reappear. The president says, "We need common-sense judges who understand that our rights were derived from God." The Supreme Court rules in favor of a school voucher plan that will allow public money to be used in private schools that teach religious doctrines. Once more, Congress wants to allocate funds to abstinence educators who blame teen sex on the loss of prayer in the schools.

What happened to our raised consciousness? To be frank, I don't regard a voluntary school pledge as a do-or-die issue. I can live with it either way. I already have lived with it either way. As for mixing the deity and the dollar, "In God We Trust" -- a tradition since the 1960s -- if He can tolerate it, so can I.

But during weeks like this one, when we celebrate our national birthday with fireworks, parades and terrorist alarms, I am alert to the roots and reasons for my own patriotism. I was born an American, with the freedom to believe and say what I want without worrying about a knock on the door at night.

Sometimes I realize I am also most grateful for what others mistrust -- our lively, argumentative, raucous, bursting-at-the-seams pluralism. For all the wrangling and strife and the cultural wars, I'm most proud when we manage to define and defend our diversity as all-American.

We live in a world filled with people willing to kill for their beliefs. But here in America, we do have a powerful tradition. We've kept the civic faith. So far.

Ellen Goodman is a columnist for the Boston Globe. Her column appears Mondays and Thursdays in The Sun. She can be reached via e-mail at ellengoodman@globe.com.

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