by Marty Jezer
It was a Republican appellate judge, Alfred T. Goodwin, appointed to a federal judgeship by that flaming civil libertarian Richard Nixon, who declared the “Pledge of Allegiance” unconstitutional. The insertion of the phrase “under God,” two of three judges on the federal ninth circuit court said, violated the first amendment right to freedom of religion, a freedom that, if it is to have meaning, must include an individual’s freedom to have no religion.
Though I’m always wary of supporting decisions made by Nixon appointees, I think Judge Goodwin’s decision was on the mark, constitutionally-speaking. Politically, it’s a disaster, tantamount to throwing a hanging curve to bat-wielding jingoistic, demagogic politicians whose great glee in life is battering free-thinking Americans. Monotheistic theocrats can rest easy, however. The Supreme Court majority, which recently ruled that taxpayer money can be used to finance private religious schools, will likely overturn the circuit court’s decision.
For most of my life I’ve been hearing right-wingers bemoan that our country has gone to the dogs because we took God out of the public schools. But the phrase “under God” is a relatively recent addition to the Pledge of Allegiance. It was inserted in 1954 as part of the McCarthyite assault on political freedom. Previously, for the 266 years that constituted the “good old days,” our country survived without school children having to allude to the deity in their morning pledge. Whether or not God is mentioned in the Pledge of Allegiance has nothing to do with the state of our nation, or the quality of our lives. Religion should be an act of personal faith; it’s of no business of the government except to provide believers and non-believers equal protection. Politicians should be judged by their deeds, not by their public display of pious affectation. The violence of history, including recent and on-going events in Ireland, the Balkans, and the Middle East, should be a sufficient warning of the explosive dangers when political and religious agendas are encouraged to mix.
Myself, I never paid heed to the words “under God” in pledging my allegiance. In a culture in which God is always described as taking right-wing positions (when He - or perhaps She -- is not otherwise occupied blessing athletes and athletic teams), I could not help but be cynical. But as I came to political maturity, I began to pay attention to another phrase in the morning pledge. “With liberty and justice for all” seemed applicable to the world around me. Growing up in the 1950s, I couldn’t help but notice the hollowness of those words. In an era of racial apartheid and ideological conformity, there was no justice and very little liberty.
“With liberty and justice for all:” those noble ideals embody the challenge of our civic life and the standard on which our country should be measured. And as we celebrate the anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, I worry that we are failing.
Take liberty. An American citizen named Jose Padilla (who now calls himself Abdullah al-Muhajir) has been held in military prison for the past couple of months without charges, without an arraignment, without a trial, and without access to his lawyer, all of which violate Article 1, Section 9 of the United States Constitution, the right of habeas corpus. This basic right goes back to 1215 and the signing of the Magna Carta by King John of England. Our own King John - Attorney-General Ashcroft of Missouri - apparently isn’t impressed by legal precedent.
Padilla, a former gang member with a long criminal record, was at first described as trying to assemble a dirty nuclear device that could destroy cities. Pretty scary but, as it turned out, not what Mr. Padilla was up to. All he knew about bombs was what he downloaded from the internet. Perhaps he tried to con Osama bin Laden in buying the public information, but we’ll never know because the government won’t present its evidence. Padilla is a former gang member with a long criminal record. He may indeed deserve to be imprisoned without bail or otherwise incarcerated. But he also deserves a lawyer, a hearing and a trial, just like any other American.
As for justice, not since the Gilded Age of the late 19th century has there been such a disparity in economic assets, writes Kevin Phillips, a Nixon advisor who in recent years has developed a populist conscience. We are becoming two nations, Phillips charges, a very small and privileged economic elite that has translated its wealth into political power, and everyone else. In 1999, the richest families in America (the multi-billionaires) had up to a million times more wealth (as measured by financial assets) than the median U.S. family household. Since then, the stock market has tanked so their individual worth has probably dropped a couple of million in pocket money. But the rest of us have seen our retirement funds shrivel, our nest-eggs disappear.
We now know that corporate chicanery has been involved. CEO’s, who sit on each other’s board of directors, reward themselves with multi-million dollar incomes even when their companies fail. They also cook their books to bloat the value of their stock options. Not all CEOs are criminals of course, and honest businesses are victimized by crooked executives just like everyone else. But where is the justice, the justice for all? When a kid gets caught for committing a theft, justice is swift and often harsh. Our prisons are filled with petty criminals whose total boodle probably doesn’t exceed the typical CEO’s one-months pay.
Criminal CEO’s and their crooked lawyers and accountants have cost Americans their jobs and their incomes. Yet, where are the indictments? Where is the call for re-regulation and economic reform? Those who insist on a mandated Pledge may get something that they do not want: Kids reciting “with liberty and justice for all” and coming to the realization that in these quintessential ideals, handed-down from our founding fathers, contemporary America is falling very short.
Marty Jezer's books include Abbie Hoffman: American Rebel and The Dark Ages: Life in the U.S. 1945-1960. He writes from Brattleboro, Vermont and welcomes comments at firstname.lastname@example.org