Wednesday, September 07, 2011

This I Believe

I got another one of those "forward if you believe in this" far-right spam emails. It started off with the pledge of allegiance, and then asked the following question:
"If Muslims can pray on Madison Avenue, why are Christians banned from praying in public and erecting religious displays on their holy days?"
Well, let me answer that question in a series of simple steps that even the questioner can hopefully understand.

But first, a few words about my modest religious upbringing. Born and raised a Southern Baptist in Atlanta, Ga, I switched to Methodism in my mid-20's, and I've been a United Methodist ever since. Yes, believe it or not, I'm a Christian.

As I was born in Atlanta, I'm the product of the Fulton and DeKalb county public school systems of the 1960s and early 1970s. I actually managed to learn something during those years, such as American history, civics, and critical reasoning skills. Which gives me an increasingly rare ability to see through the nearly infinite B.S. spewing forth like oil out of a ruptured underwater oil well from so many contemporary neo-conservatives. But I digress...

The questioner asked why we can't pray on, or erect Christian religious symbols on "their holy days"? The simple answer is that to do so on government property violates the first part of the First Amendment concerning religious freedom:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.
First Amendment to the US Constitution

In case you missed the first part, Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion. And this, my friend, includes Christianity. This covers saying Christan prayers or putting up Christrian "religious symbols" such as the cross or Nativity scenes on public grounds such as libraries, court house lawns, and other government locations around the country.

The writers of the Constitution wrote that because they'd lived through the evil of having the King of England the head of the Church of England (thanks to Henry VIII) and all that it implied, including the forced tax to support the church and going to jail if you didn't pay it. They wanted nothing to do with it. History shows that even as Christians they had diverse views of the practice of Christianity. Perhaps I'm wrong in my interpretation, but I get the impression they didn't want anyone telling them what or how to worship, or even to worship at all.

And that second part, "or prohibiting the free exercise thereof", means that those same Muslims can pray in public, just like we can. I don't know what part of the country the original author lived in, but here in Orlando we have all sorts of public Christian symbols on private, non-governmental land for all to see. Take, for example this huge cross located on Central Florida Christian Academy's private land at Good Holmes Road and the 408 West.

Losing My ReligionThe Almighty Dollar
March 2009August 2010

This religious expression is covered by the First Amendment, and it's not the only one in the area. Many churches, including St. Lukes United Methodist at Conroy and Apopka Vineland have similar, if somewhat smaller Christian symbols.

The Pledge of Allegiance

The Pledge of Allegiance has an interesting history. The original pledge was penned August 1892 by the socialist minister Francis Bellamy.

I pledge allegiance to my Flag and the Republic for which it stands, one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.
Original Pledge, August 1892, Francis Bellamy

In 1924, against Bellamy's wishes, the American Legion and Daughters of the American Revolution pressured the National Flag Conference to replace the words "my flag" with "the Flag of the United States of America."

I pledge allegiance to the Flag of the United States of America and to the Republic for which it stands, one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.
Revised Pledge, 1923

Then, in 1954, depending on which story you read, Congress added the words "under God".

I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the republic for which it stands, one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.
Revised Pledge, 1954

The pledge has had a controversial history starting in 1940. According to an entry in Wikileaks;
In 1940 the Supreme Court, in Minersville School District v. Gobitis, ruled that students in public schools, including the respondents in that case, Jehovah's Witnesses who considered the flag salute to be idolatry, could be compelled to swear the Pledge. A rash of mob violence and intimidation against Jehovah's Witnesses followed the ruling. In 1943 the Supreme Court reversed its decision, ruling in West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette that public school students are not required to say the Pledge, concluding that "compulsory unification of opinion" violates the First Amendment. In a later opinion, the Court held that students are also not required to stand for the Pledge.
In spite of my upbringing and personal belief, I find the phrase "under God" troubling, as pledging an oath with religious connotations does conflict with the free expression clause of the First Amendment. Blind unquestioning allegiance to anyone or anything, either religious or secular, is wrong. History has shown repeatedly what happens to societies that follow this path, and the pain and suffering they inflict on their citizens as well as those poor unfortunates who are "not one of us." That's why the Constitution is written the way it is, and why we must be ever vigilant to properly interpret and as well as defend it, to the best of our abilities.

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