Why the Pledge of Allegiance is a problem

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The standard response to the Pledge of Allegiance controversy is "so what, it's just two words?" Colby Cosh deftly explains why this doesn't fly by imagining that Congress replaces the star field on the American flag with a big cross.

One difference between Cosh's example and the current situation is that a cross is clearly a Christian symbol and "under God" is nominally religiously semi-neutral. But of course nominally is the key word here, since basically it's Christian. The idea that there's a single unitary (or at least triune) deity pretty much excludes any major religions outside of what's now called the Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition.

Within that tradition, Muslims, of course refer not to God, but to Allah. While it's true that Allah means "God", the primacy of Arabic in Islam seems to result in Allah being used whatever language is being spoken, much more like a personal name. It's very common to see English-speaking Muslims say "Allah", but Christians tend to use the word for "God" in whatever language they're speaking--even if they themselves learned it in a different language. Anyway, if you think this doesn't matter consider how Americans would great the suggestion that we should say "under Allah" instead of "under God."

That leaves us with Christians and Jews. I'm less familiar with how Jews view this topic, though I do know that many Jews prefer not to write or say "God", and instead will write "G-d" and say "Hashem" (literally, "the Name")1, so I suspect that many Jews would find a certain discomfort level with saying "under God" in a non-prayer context. This leaves us with Christians as the only people wholly comfortable with this language, which isn't surprising, because the real purpose of the "under God" language was always to reinforce the primacy of Christianity in American culture[*].

1. Of course, all of these are placeholders for the personal name of God, YHWH (pronounced Yahweh, not Jehovah). [*].

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13 Comments

Actually, Britain (and hence Australia and New Zealand), Switzerland and the Scandinavian countries all have big Christian crosses on their flags. (And I've missed a few, I'm sure.) The French version of the Canadian national anthem mentions the cross explicitly, and I'd bet it's not the only national anthem to refer to Christianity in some way. And of course there's US currency....

That's not to say I'm personally thrilled about all these small injections of religion into standard expressions of patriotism. (As a Jewish child growing up in Canada, I attended public schools where classes recited Christian prayers each morning, and I can't say I enjoyed the practice.) But considering them shocking or outrageous seems to be a peculiarly American trait, as the above list of examples demonstrates.

Most countries have a dominant religion, and allow its elements to leak into national practices to some extent. The US, however, has an official religion--constitutionalism--whose multiple sects are constantly bickering about points of interpretation, such as whether it officially rejects theism, or merely rejects specific religions, or in fact embraces the dominant religion. This sort of doctrinal dispute is a great argument for not having an official religion, and instead allowing the democratic process to define laws concerning religion (along with everything else) on an ad hoc basis. If that results in unpleasantly religious public institutions and practices--well, at least you know where your fellow citizens stand.

Well, the US currency thing was added in the same orgy of God-insertion that brought us "under God." It's certainly true that other countries do have big crosses on their flags, but then many of those countries are also officially Christian--which, indeed, I take to be Cosh's point.

...because the real purpose of the "under God" language was always to reinforce the primacy of Christianity in American culture.

That's a rather bold statement to throw out there casually, with no supporting evidence. I'm not saying I disagree, but in my opinion you should have prefaced it with "in my opinion," or else given some sort of evidence or justification.

The evidence is contained in the Slate article linked immediately after the assertion.

Ah, I missed that -- I thought the asterisk referred to the footnote (which didn't make a lot of sense, admittedly). My apologies.

....Except that I don't see the Slate article suggesting at all that the point of inserting "under God" into the pledge was "to reinforce the primacy of Christianity in American culture". On the contrary, the Slate article, as far as I can tell, agrees with the conventional explanation that the phrase was added to contrast religious (not specifically Christian) America with the atheistic Communist bloc.

Incidentally, during the post-9/11 anthrax mailings investigation, at least one expert noted by that a Muslim native English speaker would be more likely to use the translation "God" in English than the Arabic word "Allah". Hence, it's far from clear that a Muslim would find the reference to God in the Pledge of Allegiance objectionable. (The same could be said of most Jews, I might add, since the English word is at least as much a euphemism as any of the commonly used Hebrew ones. While many Jews use the latter by custom, I don't recall ever meeting one who felt uncomfortable using the former.)

Of course, none of this would make the pledge the slightest bit more acceptable to non-monotheists, let alone atheists. Still, characterizing it as specifically Christian strikes me as a stretch.

Yeah, I don't really agree with that interpretation of the Slate article: "
In 1955, with Ike's support, Congress added the words "In God We Trust" on all paper money. In 1956 it made the same four words the nation's official motto, replacing "E Pluribus Unum." Legislators introduced Constitutional amendments to state that Americans obeyed "the authority and law of Jesus Christ."

The campaign to add "under God" to the Pledge of Allegiance was part of this movement."


WRT Muslims: that's not *quite* what the article said: "The letters include widely known slogans that reveal little, but linguists have said the letters' final line, "Allah is great," sounds awkward. Tayeb El-Hibri, a Near Eastern studies professor at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, said an Islamic author would not have mixed two languages: "It struck me as unusual because Muslims would usually say, 'Allahu Akhbar,' or 'God is great.' It doesn't coincide.""

But "Allahu Akbar" is a self-contained phrase that Muslims use all the time, so it makes sense to translate it in total. I'm not sure that it follows that the word "Allah" would always be translated this way.

WRT Jews, it's certainly quite common practice to, e.g., not write out the word "God" and to use "Hashem" rather than say "Adonai" or "Elohim" (the appropriate parallels to the English words "Lord" and "God" respectively) in secular contexts. I don't have any direct experience here but from what I've been able to read, it doesn't seem to be purely habit.

I've been in close contact with Judaism for five years now. The Artscroll siddur (prayer book) is almost universally accepted, and it consistently translates "Elohim" as "God". (Not even "G-d".) While it is common among the strongly Orthoxody community (a small minority in this country) to use "G-d", or to stick with transliterations of Hebrew circumlocutions, I expect that even in these communities, there is not a problem with the phrase.

Don't confligrate anti-atheism with Chistian triumphalism. As has been mentioned, the driving force was anti-communism. The Consitutional Ammendment never passed Congress, and I expect that the most philo-semetic nation in history shied away from it for that reason.

Finally, your footnote is FAR more offensive, to even nominal Jews. The tetragrammeton is NEVER spelled out, or pronounced, in Judaism. It is common for even prayer books to use ditto marks in place of the name. I understand the difficulty of communicating your idea--I would instead say, "These are circumlocutions for the personal name of God given to Moses."

WRT the footnote, I'm not Jewish and this isn't a prayer book. It's absolutely standard practice in the academic religious studies literature to spell out the tetragrammaton, and indeed when I was in school the professors routinely pronounced it. That's the example I'm following. Moreover, the issue isn't one of offensiveness but rather of the State endorsing a particular religious viewpoint. The First Amendment restriction on establishment of religion doesn't obtain on my blog.

Either you are concerned about offending Jews or you are not. If you are, you change the footnote. If you are not, then why do you raise the issue?

Moreover, you don't raise actual offensiveness, but postulate possible offensiveness. I referenced the prayer book as direct evidence that the word "God" in the attacked phrase is not likely to be objectionable to Jews.

Again, you are taking the position that others should change their actions because you hypothesize that some Jews might be offended (at the use of the word "God" in a government-sponsored phrase) while you personally engage in behavior which is patently offensive to most Jews (the spelling out, with transliteration, of the tetragrameton).

The fact that Christian scholars regularly engage in this behavior which offends Jews is no cover for your personal actions.

Again, you're failing to distinguish behavior which is appropriate for the US government from behavior which is appropriate for a private individual. It's perfectly appropriate and non-offensive for a private individual to assert that he thinks Christianity (or Judaism, or Islam, or whatever) is right or wrong. However, that's not something that's appropriate for the US government to do. The offensiveness of the speech only comes in here to the extent that it sends the message that the government favors Christianity over Judaism.

With regard to the appropriateness of my use of the tetragrammaton, I can only tell you that it's standard academic usage among rel-stud scholars of pretty much all backgrounds, who generally strive for maximum correctness rather than maximum inoffensiveness. After all, the very notion that one ought to question the accuracy of the texts one is studying is offensive to many believers.

Erik, I have no problem with you wanting the government to cease promoting the phrase "In God we trust". I disagree with you, but I really did shoulder a rifle in your defense to do so. I also respect you, or I wouldn't bother with my attempts to adjust your approach to certain issues.

At no point have I accused you of using the phrase "In God we trust" so as to offend Jews. I accuse you of using the tetragramaton so as to offend Jews. I would not have made an issue of the matter AT ALL, except that you did so in a footnote in the middle of a discourse about how the poor, beaten down Jew MIGHT be offended. I honestly thought that you were unaware of the issue because your comments clearly indicated that you had limited contact with the community, and because of the significant difficulty that I had coming up with an acceptable alternative.

I believe that you consider yourself a libertarian. In that case, "the government" is the people, working in an amalgamated fashion through their elected and appointed officials. You disapprove of this action, in part on the basis that a group of people might find it offensive. You argue then, that I should stop possible offending these people through my agent, the government while you personally engage in behavior that is patently offensive to these same people.

I find your appeal to the scholastic community bizzare. You are no Biblical scholar. Even if you were, if your professed concern for offending Jews were genuine, you would not write out transliterations of the tetragrameton. Given your response to my raising this issue, it would appear that your use of the issue of offending Jews is cynical if not dishonest.

Oh, since you mentioned "accuracy", I would point out that the only direct witness to the pronounciation of the tetragramton (the traitor Josephus) stated that it was four vowels. That contradicts both of the options you so confidently posited.

As for questioning the accuracy of the texts, scholars have been doing that since the Masorites(sp) or earlier. Their assumptions and goals were different from much of what goes on now, however. These assumptions and goals--as revealed in the work--are what offend thinking believers.

Sorry, but once again, you're missing the point.
I'm not saying that the government shouldn't offend Jews but rather that it should not prefer one religious viewpoint to another. The question of whether the use of the word God offends Jews is only relevant to the extent that it bears on the claim that the "under God" language is somehow religiously neutral. There are many things that the government could do that would offend some believers that are nevertheless wholly legitimate activities (teaching evolution comes to mind). Indeed, offending people is pretty much unavoidable.

Your argument about state behavior versus individual behavior strikes me as deeply silly. Many activities are legitimate for individuals that are not appropriate for states and this will continue to be the case as long as the state occupies a special position in terms of its monopoly on organized violence.

As for the question of whether it's appropriate for *me* to spell out the tetragrammaton, I'm not setting out to offend people, but neither do I have any intention of censoring discourse which I consider legitimate--and frankly interesting to a general audience--to ensure that I don't offend anyone. The issue of whether I'm a biblical scholar is simply irrelevant. As noted previously, I'm following standard convention here, and it's not like I need a PhD in order to do so. If you find that cynical and dishonest, so be it.

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