Newsweek offers up a must read online article by Melinnda Hennenberger about why, as I have argued often in this space, atheist Michael Newdow is right about removing the phrase "Under God" from the Pledge of Allegiance. She argues that religious words have lost their meaning – they are just therapeutic symbols that people don’t actually believe to be true – and if that is the case, we might as well say to hell with them:
In Chicago the other night, I met an old school friend for a late dinner. She’s a lawyer now, with two young kids, and as we talked about our families, she said how much she envied me my faith—or as she put it, my “ability to make that leap of irrationality.” She explained that she, a non-believing Catholic, and her husband, a non-believing Jew, were trying to find a way to pass on a little trumped-up religious feeling to their children. Why? “Because that’s such a comfort for kids.”
“You’ve always been such a true believer,” she said—and at this point she actually leaned over and patted my arm. “But they’re just a bunch of stories that are supposed to make us feel better.” I believe this was the moment I began to think, “I gave up two hours of sleep for this?” And when I was reminded of a story Flannery O’Connor told on herself, as quoted in George Weigel’s beautiful new book, “Letters to a Young Catholic:’
“I was once…taken by some friends to have dinner with Mary McCarthy…She departed the Church at age 15 and is a Big Intellectual. We went at eight and at one, I hadn’t opened my mouth once, there being nothing for me in such company to say. The people who took me were Robert Lowell and his now-wife, Elizabeth Hardwick. Having me there was like having a dog present who had been trained to say a few words but overcome with inadequacy had forgotten them. Well, toward morning the conversation turned on the Eucharist, which I, being the Catholic, was obviously supposed to defend…(McCarthy) said when she was a child and received the Host, she thought of it as the Holy Ghost, He being the “most portable” person of the Trinity; now she thought of it as a symbol and implied that it was a pretty good one. I then said, in a very shaky voice, “Well, if it’s a symbol, to hell with it.’’’
But, back in the real world….my Chicago friend was still talking, saying laughingly that her husband had actually proposed that they become secular humanists, of all things—a total non-starter in light of her plans to run for office. Here she cited Newdow. Last month, when he was arguing his point of view in front of the Supreme Court, Newdow said the only reason this issue had not been divisive when the phrase was added to the pledge in 1954 was that “no atheists can be elected to office” in the United States.
So, my friend said, until she and her husband came up with a better plan, they were raising their children in their best approximation of both of the faiths they had grown up in and rejected. It seemed to be going okay, too, she said, describing her son and daughter as “pious Jews who were so serious about giving up candy for Lent, it was so cute.” Now this conversation was really headed nowhere good. You cannot be a pious Jew who is serious about Lent, I told her. Of course you can, she argued. No, you can honor both traditions, you can play with a dreidel and hunt for Easter eggs, but you either believe that the Messiah has come or has not come.
She conclides the article:
Several Supreme Court justices seemed to challenge Newdow by asking if we hadn’t just as well keep the phrase “under God” because it had been stripped of any real meaning. Justice David Souter said the words are “hardly noticed by most people, including children. This is so tepid, so diluted, so far from compulsory prayer that it is beneath the constitutional radar” monitoring the separation of church and state. U.S. Solicitor Theodore Olson said the words were purely “ceremonial.” Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist called the phrase “descriptive.”
They are “just words,” you see-like the Bible is “just stories.” But words do matter; the whole gay-marriage debate is a war over a word: marriage. The idea of words stripped of meaning—specific meaning—is another kind of sacrilege to me. (Why are we newsfolk always writing sentences like, “Blah, blah, blah,” Mr. Smarty Pants shrugged—when Mr. Pants did not, in fact, shrug? I’ve never known. Why do stories about nuns, particularly if they are Irish nuns, seem to require a nonsense description of Sister So-and-So’s “twinkling eyes.” Scary stuff, I tell you.) And if the words “under God” don’t mean what they say—and of course, they do not—then what good are they? If it’s a symbol, to hell with it.