To the secularity for which it stands

July 04, 2002|By Ann L. Rappoport

WYNCOTE, Pa. -- It's not the fact that we're "one nation under God" that distinguishes the United States.

Theocracies have always abounded under their gods. Osama bin Laden fights his international holy war under God. The Taliban who asserted their policies ruled under God. For thousands of years, traditional Chinese dynasties ruled by the grace of the Mandate of Heaven.

Thank you, honorable justices of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, for what began as a courageous stand in protecting what is truly distinguishing and precious about our democracy.

FOR THE RECORD - In some of yesterday's editions, today's Opinion-Commentary page appeared in place of Page 11A. The Sun regrets the error.

And, President Bush and congressional singers, the ignorance and arrogance expressed by your comments and by the resolutions passed in response to the court ruling prompt enough embarrassment to compete with the fear you provoke among many of us who study history and teach civic responsibility.

Even more prominent in this nation's founding and supporting documents than God was the right of God's creatures to live certain freedoms without interference from the tyranny of the majority. The purpose of government was to secure the blessings of liberty to what, appropriately, has been an expanding definition of citizens not to secure or require God's public stature.

Unlike in other nations, tax monies were not to be used toward the establishment of religion. Government institutions were conceived of and authorized as a last resort to protect minorities, not to oppress them. That's something atypical and cherished about this nation, and abusing or abridging it is one of the most egregious offenses.

Sadly, a loud majority of prominent Americans fuels the misperception that, by mouthing a devotion to God, people become more ethical. That's a choker, as if "under God" has prevented this nation's most famous political and corporate scandals. As if saying the pledge prevented Father Fill-in-the-blank from committing abuses. As if passing coins in a realm that proclaims our trust in God stopped Enron, WorldCom, Arthur Andersen, ImClone and friends from cheating millions of ethical, innocent compatriots.

Please understand that the issue is not either/or: either a God-fearing, ethical nation or a godless, value-less anarchy or dictatorship. That straw man doesn't have credibility worthy of the tooth fairy.

Unethical behavior is not thwarted by required oaths.

Ethical behavior derives from diverse sources, like other strengths in our society. In our multiplicity resides the wealth of this nation. In our plurality resides our protection.

Nor is the issue one of abridging people's "right to say the pledge" or to pray. Another straw man. The court ruling prevents no one from exercising free speech or praying. What it does is limit the awesome, coercive powers of government to require, cajole, or favor prayer and supplication to God.

With respect to rendering the government its due, and rendering divergent religions and philosophies their due, George Washington wrote in 1790, "For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens." The message directly, and its broader context, supports strictly secular allegiance.

Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1802, "Religion is a matter which lies solely between man and his God."

An early Nazi-sympathizer, turned opponent, Martin Niemoeller, offered these cautionary thoughts to majorities that define God in terms of themselves and their side: "First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out because I was not a socialist. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out because I was not a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me, and there was no one left to speak for me."

For posterity, and for God's sake, if you must, let's not undermine what's truly unique about our constitutional framework. We can pledge loyalty, conduct business, excel in scholarship and improve our communities through kindness and civic awareness without establishing God's name in publicly sponsored institutions.

Ann L. Rappoport, an adjunct professor at Temple University and a free-lance writer, directs an award-winning civic education program in Pennsylvania.

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