April 11, 2004

The pledge case

Like many observers of the Supreme Court, I am assuming that the court will reverse the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals and rule for the school district in Elk Grove v. Newdow. If it does so by accepting the argument that the words "under God" are a form of ceremonial deism, it will be accepting the argument of many defenders of "under God" that the words are largely inconsequential in a legal sense—even while defenders insist that the words are essential in a political sense.

I suppose I could pull out the standard journalistic probe, "So if the words are inconsequential as religious expression, what's the problem with removing them?" But that quip belies the fundamental cultural conflict over religious expression in public life. Those who approve of religious expression in public (including on public grounds) see it either as an inherent part of our cultural heritage or as a beneficent resource that shouldn't offend anyone (like a coffee pot in a work breakroom). Those who disapprove of religious expression in public see it as pervasive and coercive (like elevator music), marginalizing them and their beliefs as unimportant.

Thus far, the courts have avoided facing this conflict by resorting to a legal fiction—some religious expression is not religious. Thus, Christians can put trees in public places as long as they don't have stars or mangers, somehow becoming "seasonal displays" instead of the tacit religious symbols that everyone recognizes. The words "under God" don't really mean "under God," somehow, being emptied of their content over 50 years—even though millions of Americans are livid at the possibility that they might be stricken from the morning ritual in thousands of schools.

This legal desanctification means nothing to ordinary people, and it's confusing. "Under God" will probably be ruled acceptable in the officially-sponsored Pledge of Allegiance, but officially-sponsored prayer isn't. One Christian translation of the Ten Commandments can't be on state grounds, but "God save this honorable court" is a perfectly fine way to open sessions of the U.S. Supreme Court. The legal fiction of ceremonial deism and seasonal displays evade the deeper cultural conflict. Maybe that's right—courts aren't supposed to resolve all conflicts.

Maybe it reflects the curious mixing of religion and other influences in society. Is it a watering-down of theological significance to commercialize so many holidays (Easter to some extent, Christmas to a much greater extent?). That's a question for the religiously-inclined to answer, but I would definitely understand considerably mixed feelings that the court allows "Christmas Lite" displays.

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Posted in Random comments on April 11, 2004 7:20 AM |