31 December 2008

We Need to Rethink the Argument

Michael Newdow--our good atheist fighting the good fight in California--is, once again, standing up for our rights. He is known for working through litigation to remove the words 'under God' from our Pledge of Allegiance. This is what he's up to now:
California atheist Michael Newdow -- famed for challenging the words "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance -- has gone to the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia seeking an injunction to prevent Chief Justice John Roberts Jr., as well as the congressional sponsors of the Jan. 20 inaugural and several other defendants, from inserting the words "so help me God" into the oath.
The argument:
...it would be okay if Obama adds the phrase on his own. But if Roberts "prompts" Obama to recite the offending phrase by offering the words himself, that would amount to a "state actor" endorsing religion, Newdow asserts. And that would violate the First Amendment's establishment clause, as well as the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, according to Newdow.
Okay. I think I kind of agree with this. If Obama wants to, personally, add the religious endorsement, you know, as an individual American with the right to worship and believe as he sees fit, then, yeah, fine. If he is prompted to do so, by being asked to repeat the words by a Supreme Court Justice, then, yes, that kind of does seem like an official endorsement.

If some people think this is a silly, superfluous thing--that it's not really an endorsement and doesn't mean anything, let's try a tiny thought-experiement. Imagine, if you will, an atheist President. I'll give you all a moment to laugh that out of your systems. But, let's just say for argument's sake, that an atheist won the election and was being sworn in. Now, what if he or she was prompted to say these words and he or she refused? Admit it...there would be an outcry. It would start in the weeks before the inauguration. Pundits would include little segments in their shows: Joe or Jane Atheist's Inauguration: So Help Him or Her God? And people would call in or email that, darn it, it's a national tradition! And what would a Justice like Roberts do when the time came? Would he respect the President-elect's personal, individual beliefs, or would he insist on pushing this supposed national tradition? And if he chose to push it, would he be doing so out of some zombie-like adherence to 'tradition,' or would it be for a whole other zombie-like adherence to endorse a certain religion?

Some people claim they are just words, but the fact is that we all use words, every day, sometimes to bullshit, and sometimes, just sometimes, we use them to say exactly what we mean. And in this context--as with any context where these words are coming out of the mouths of our government officials for governmental events--this is a problem.

Also, a commentor on this article makes a good point. An anonymous poster says:
I thought it was odd that the controversy was that Obama selected Rick Warren for an official prayer, rather than that there is an "official" prayer at all.
Wuh...huh? Uh, yeah. And, now that I'm thinking about it, I'm surprised this isn't the argument I'm seeing from atheists. It's like the whole 'remove the nativity scene from the public building' thing. It's not the nativity scene we are protesting. It's not the particular religion we are against. It is the representation of any religion on public grounds--public grounds paid for by all citizens and not just adherents to a certain religion. It is the official endorsement of any religion by a government who is supposed to be representing all citizens and not just the ones who believe in one particular sky-fairy.

And so why aren't we protesting the idea of an innvocation in the inaugural ceremonies, as opposed to which deluded representative is picked to serve as MC? I don't know the answer to that, but I can tell you why folks would say that we shouldn't. More accurately, why folks would berate us and attempt to humiliate and marginalize us further. They will say that we're trying to degrade our nation's (Christian) traditions, and worse, when we do this, we are only making ourselves look foolish for expending these energies on such silly things. Of course, they will overlook the point that if they think we should find these things meaningless and silly, they themselves should do so as well, and so removing them shouldn't be a big deal for anyone. The fact that it always is a big deal shows that it is important. It is important to strip these religious endorsements from our government, for the sake of everyone.

I'd like to point out that I almost typed '...not just atheists, but for anyone with an alternative religious view other than Christian.' But I hate that. I hate it when atheists say that they're not just arguing on behalf of 'just' atheists, as if we don't count and can be overlooked as not really being citizens, but on behalf of these folks--the real citizens--who believe, at least, in something.

No, I think Mr. Anon is right. Warren is not the problem, the invocation is. Words like 'under God,' 'In God We Trust,' and '...so help me God,' are not, in themseves, the problem. They are when they are if they are in our Pledge, on our money, and/or coming out of the mouths of government officials for official purposes. Right now, they are acting in all of these capacities. These words are all beings used, right now, as official endorsements of Christianity by our government. Our government. The government that governs us all. This needs to stop.

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