Tuesday, September 16, 2008

America: A nation divided for good reasons

The US is a nation divided for good reasons

From The Statesman
ND Batra

The American people observed the seventh anniversary of the 11 September terrorists’ attacks under the patriotic triangulation of God, the USA and Terrorism. The triangulation, the equivalent of space-age global positioning systems, enables the American people to be aware of the threat to their existence, the American way, relative to the known positions and undeclared intentions of the US’s enemies, and makes Americans see the world differently, whether they support Senator Barack Obama or Senator John McCain for the presidency.

If you are visiting the US for the first time, you might feel there’s too much of God here. That’s perhaps the first cultural shock you might feel on arrival but very soon it wears away because the American people don’t give much meaning to it, not as much as does the Islamic militants’ resounding cry, Allah O Akbar. And Americans invoke God often because sometime they have nothing else to say. Driving through the Pennsylvania Dutch countryside, a visitor would find it hard not to notice the billboard admonishing: “Everyone shall give an account of himself to God.” The US dollar bill says, “In God We Trust.” When someone takes an oath of office, he or she has to repeat after the person who administers the oath, “So help me God.” If you sneeze, someone will say, “Bless you,” even if the person does not know you.

Most Americans invoke God as a social crutch, much as a Frenchman would say bonjour (which, perhaps means, pardon my ignorance, that French wine and women are the best), unless Americans feel stressed and threatened as happened in the aftermath of the 11 September terrorist attacks when they mixed God with patriotism to make heady booze that would have blown your head off. It is also true that, more than ever, American political discourse, including whatever wisdom spouts from the White House, is suffused with references to God despite the constitutional brick wall between the church and the state.

You can’t live in fear and be free and so invoking God makes you feel free from fear. But to be free means to make your choice. Making a choice also includes choosing your own God, monotheistic or polytheistic; or even the God-particle that the CERN lab in Switzerland is trying to discover. It is not the government’s business to tell an American what God to choose, thus spake the US Constitution, and so ruled the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit on 26 June 2002. The decision came after a lawsuit filed by a physician, Dr Michael Newdow, an atheist who complained that his elementary school daughter’s First Amendment rights to be free from God were violated when she was given no choice but to “watch and listen as her state-employed teacher in her state-run school leads her classmates in a ritual proclaiming that there is a God, and that ours is ‘one nation under God’”.That does not mean that atheists have no place in these US, except that they should not take their atheism too seriously.

Not all states require the Pledge of Allegiance to be included in the school day but half of the state legislatures have made its inclusion a requirement. Making the situation murkier is a 1943 US Supreme Court ruling that children cannot be forced to recite the pledge, though the school’s public address system may recite it. In matters of religion, the government shall remain uninvolved, that is the constitutional mandate. Until 1954, the Pledge of Allegiance included the phrase “one nation indivisible”, but to fight the godless communism, the Soviet or Chinese variety, Congress changed the pledge to include “one nation under God.”

The wall between church and state seemed to some extreme secularists to crack a little bit. And since then God, not a sectarian one, Catholic or Protestant, but a generic God, a mythical Supreme Deity, has found a frequent place in public discourse. In a 2-1 ruling, Judge Alfred T Goodman of the Circuit Appeal Court ruled that the pledge that we are a “nation under God” is identical to saying that we are a nation “under Jesus”, a nation “under Vishnu”, a nation “under Zeus”. Such a profession violated the First Amendment mandate that the government shall stay neutral in matters of religion. It would send a wrong message to impressionable children that if they did not participate in the recitation of the pledge, they might become “outsiders”, the judge wrote.

The court discovered a glaring contradiction in what the US Constitution professes and what the American people want to believe and practise. The pledge excludes some polytheists who worship multiple gods and goddesses; atheists and agnostics; or those like the Buddhists, who believe in nirvana, a state of supreme bliss, tranquillity and purity that is attained when the self is absorbed into the Infinite. It has been argued that the recitation of the pledge that includes “one nation under God”, is psychologically coercive, because it forces people to accept monotheism as the sole religious path available to them. The pledge not only violates the Constitution but also negates cultural pluralism. It violates freedom of choice. We should return to the original wording in the pledge, “one nation indivisible”, so it is argued.

Most Americans, like the dissenting Judge Ferdinand F Fernandez, however, dismissed the fear that the US might become a theocracy because of the inclusion “under God” in the pledge. The appeal court’s ruling was overturned by the US Supreme Court decision in 2004.

Late Justice William Rehnquist said, “To give the parent of such a child a sort of ‘heckler’s veto’ over a patriotic ceremony willingly participated in by other students, simply because the Pledge of Allegiance contains the descriptive phrase ‘under God’, is an unwarranted extension of the establishment clause, an extension which would have the unfortunate effect of prohibiting a commendable patriotic observance.”

But Governor Sarah Palin of Alaska, the young and the feisty running mate of Mr McCain for the presidency told Mr Charlie Gibson of ABC News last week that “God has a plan”.

Let’s see whether God’s plan is descriptive or prescriptive, evolutionary or intelligent.

(ND Batra is professor of communicationsat Norwich University)

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