Friday, April 20, 2007

Is The Pledge Dividing A "Nation Indivisible?"

When California physician/lawyer Michael Newdow won a lawsuit on behalf of his nine-year-old daughter challenging school-sponsored recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance because of its inclusion of the religious phrase “under God,” many people were taken by surprise. After all, we are dealing with a national icon here. Few Americans can remember when the phrase “under God” was not included in our Pledge. Generations of homegrown Americans have recited the Pledge in schools for decades and never thought a thing about it. Indeed, one of the shortcomings of learning anything by rote is that the words are seldom symbolized. When we recite something over and over again, it becomes as automatic as tying our shoes. We don’t think about it; we just do it.

Too, when it comes to the Pledge, we are buoyed up by the inviolability of the icon itself. It is as permanent as a landmark. In fact, previous efforts to have “under God” in the Pledge declared unconstitutional have failed. But now we have the 9th US Circuit Court of Appeals ruling in favor of Mr. Newdow’s petition. There’s no doubt when this lawsuit makes it to the Supreme Court, it will be one of the epic battles of all time in the age-old separation of church and state controversy.

But let’s look at the issue purely from the standpoint of law and individual protection. The original court declared that public school sponsorship of a pledge containing “under God” runs afoul of the religious neutrality required by the Constitution. In rendering the decision, the Court stated, “A profession that we are a nation ‘under God’ is identical to a profession that we are a nation ‘under Jesus,’ a nation ‘under Vishnu,’ a nation ‘under Zeus,’ or a nation ‘under no god,’ because none of these professions can be neutral with respect to religion.”

The Court went further by concluding that “The coercive effect of this policy is particularly pronounced in the school setting given the age and impressionability of school children, and their understanding that they are required to adhere to the norms set by their school, their teacher and their fellow students.” In other words, children who happen to come from a different faith system than the majority can be ridiculed and made to feel powerless simply for questioning why they have to conform to something that is not a part of their family or religious heritage. It doesn’t feel right to them. Unfortunately, most Americans don’t care. To most of us, our emotional reaction is “more right” even if it reeks of intolerance.

But setting aside the emotional reaction of most Americans (who feel rather strongly that our forefathers firmly intended “God” to have a central place in the purported spiritual ambiance of American virtue) and getting back to the ethics of law, the appeals court decision shows, at a minimum, a just respect for freedom of conscience. In the context of public schools, it is not realistic to expect children, regardless of their beliefs, to refuse to participate in activities their peers do.

As a matter of First Amendment law, this should be an easy case. The high court should affirm the 9th Circuit’s decision. The Constitution is a secular document. That the Founders made it clear they believed an American’s religious or philosophical beliefs should be irrelevant to the government. One can be a patriotic American regardless of his religious belief; or lack thereof. A government should never coerce school children, or anyone else, to make a profession of a religious belief. When the Rev. Francis Bellamy penned the Pledge in 1892, he spoke of “one nation, indivisible.” The last thing Bellamy wanted was a Pledge that would divide Americans along religious lines.

It’s also an easy case from a pragmatic policy perspective. Our country is becoming increasingly diverse. Public schools now serve children of many faiths; and many with no faith at all. It should certainly not require students to make a religious profession as the price of expressing patriotism.

But on the other side of the debate, one can well argue that such symbolic uses of religion as in the words “under God” and “in God we trust” have been stated and printed so often that the government’s use of such religious terminology has, in effect, long drained the words of any religious significance. The words themselves have become ceremonial, rather then religious. Such God-inclusive phrases can be found everywhere in both judicial and legislative undertakings.

Regardless of how well intentioned our sentiments are in this issue, the eventual Supreme Court consideration of the matter will be a media feeding frenzy because few national groups will likely see the constitutional correctness of it. Politicians have already widely blasted the decision of the lower court. President George W. Bush further announced that, although the federal government was not a party to the case, the United States government would intervene and pursue an appeal. Then, when the Circuit Court declined to re-examine the ruling, it left only the Supreme Court to settle the dispute. There is no doubt the implications of the judicial action on church-state issues will be far-reaching.

As a fervor will most certainly boil around this controversy, one thing remains hopeful. Even though overwhelming political pressure will undoubtedly be placed on the Supreme Court--through email campaigns directed by the Religious Right, in briefs filed by friends of the court, petition drives by citizens asking that the words be retained in the Pledge--all of these gestures should remain largely symbolic. While such moves have historically swayed elected legislators, judges are expected to base their rulings on the Constitution and the laws of the United States alone.

The high court ruling will likely come down to whether the justices believe the phrase “under God” is considered too benign, or incidental, to be a violation of the First Amendment. There is no question that, if any American is forced to make a religious affirmation as a condition of expressing his love of country, then that affirmation inherently breaches the wall of church-state separation. Prior to 1954, the United States had a pledge that did not divide Americans along religious lines. It is probably safer that we go back to that. Perhaps it was an error of shortsidedness in 1954 when we added the “under God” sentiment to the Pledge. Perhaps we even violated our own constitution then. Perhaps we should have let a sleeping dog die.

But we didn’t. So, if the Supreme Court upholds the 9th Circuit Court ruling, the present public sentiment favoring the religious pronouncement in the Pledge will likely launch a drive by the Religious Right for a constitutional amendment designed to force a union of church and state. It is doubtful that many political leaders will have the backbone to stand up and say why altering the First Amendment is a bad idea.

The larger question may well be: Is the risk of a constitutional amendment fueled by the Religious Right worth taking? I think not. As much as I personally like the symbolic unity and spiritual satisfaction I get from thinking I am living in one nation “under God,” I am also quite prepared to acknowledge that all humans live in places “under God.” In the end, I wouldn’t have it any other way. After all, it is the meaning of the Brotherhood of Man under the Fatherhood of God.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

The Question(s) of Ethics

This paper was presented at a statewide youth leadership conference to
young people, ages 13 to 18. During the workshop, the students divided
into groups and worked on a number of very challenging ethical questions
not included here. The response was very good; the topic always timely.
I have lived more than a half century. I still do not know all the answers to life. In fact, I'm still wrestling with many of the questions. But I do know this: You will never find contentment and fulfillment in your life until you figure out who you really are. What makes you distinctively you in your own eyes? What makes you different from other people you know? What makes you special? What is there about you which people like, or accept, or would want to imitate? What is there about you that you think people may not like? Are you changing how you think about things as you get older? Do you think you're different now than you were, say, ten years ago? Does who you are becoming matter to you at this point in your life? Are you going down the path that you know is right for you? Do you think one can take a different path anytime he wants to? Are you satisfied with the risks you are taking? Are you unhappy with yourself? Do you like the way you look? Would you like to be like someone else? Are you unhappy with your fears? Do any of these questions really matter to you right now?
You may not think so; but trust me--they do. Or they will. I have been asked to talk to you about ethics and why it is important to have ethics. And I can also assure you that everyone has ethics. We have no choice about that. The choice we do have is what our ethics are going to be. What they are going to be to ourselves and to those whom we come in contact with. We will all live some kind of ethical life. The question each of us has to decide is what ethic we will personally choose to live by.
So, if you can accept the idea that you cannot be truly happy without knowing yourself, then it stands to reason that the sooner you get on with this task of finding out about yourself, the earlier you will find happiness.
But it is also not so easy to know oneself. To know who we really are, we have to know what we stand for as a man and as a human being. This doesn't mean what religion we prescribe to, or what politics we favor, or whether we are part of the most popular crowd in school. Or even if we have not yet found what it is that makes us special, or in what area we might excel. What matters is what we do and how we think and how we respond to our life when the chips are down.
What do you do when faced with a dilemma in your life? How do you personally react to issues regarding your own freedom, or the freedom of others? What rights are important to you? Do you believe everyone should have the same rights as you? Whom do you admire the most? Whom would you like to be like? What inspires you about them? Have you ever hated anyone? If so, why? And for how long? What has been the greatest accomplishment in your life? Are there things you hope to do better? For what in your life do you feel the most grateful? Why? How much do feel you are in control of the course of your life? When did you last yell at someone? Why? Did you regret it later? Is it easy for you to accept help when you need it? From someone other than a parent, or family member? Will you ask for help when you need it? What are your most compulsive habits? Do you regularly struggle to break them? What is most important to you in life? What do you wish to strive for? Do you feel your childhood was happier than most other peoples? What from your childhood has proved most beneficial? What has proved most difficult? Have you ever considered suicide? Or known someone who has? What is so important to you that without it, life would seem not worth living? If your friends could bluntly and honestly tell you what they really thought of you, would you want them to?
These are all serious questions. They are the questions about who we really are; questions about our values, our beliefs--questions about our life. And in our life, the big questions; the ethics-based questions, will relate to sex, integrity, generosity, pride, morals, honesty, justice, power, principles, trust, money, friendship, responsibility, accountability--and even death. These are the issues which will define us, and how we relate to other people. They are all important. They are all essential to our ultimate success and fulfillment.
As a young person just beginning your journey into adulthood it is not too early to begin thinking about the issues of ethics you may have already encountered. Here are a few more questions that may have already surfaced in your life. Think about how you would answer them for yourself. If you decided to do something and your friends strongly advised you not to, would you do it anyway? Do you frequently find yourself--just to be cool--saying things you don't really mean? Why do you do this? Is it sometimes right to be a little bit dishonest? Would you be willing to commit perjury for a close friend? For instance, might you testify that he was driving carefully when he ran over a pedestrian even though he had been joking and not paying attention? If you were having difficulty on an important test and could safely cheat by looking at someone elses paper, would you do so? At a party, your friends start belittling someone you all know. If you felt their criticisms were unjustified, would you defend the person? Would you rather play a game with someone who is more or less talented than you? Would it matter who was watching?
You see, these are all questions about who we really are; about our values, and how we are seen by others. It may be that we can get by wearing a mask that we think others expect us to wear. It may be that we can be a little dishonest, have mostly conditional relationships, take advantage of some people some of the time, put ourselves above others who might be less fortunate, or handicapped, or from some other ethnic background. It may be that we can go through life just being average, and meeting everyone elses average expectations of us.
But never forget that you are building your own life. You are perfecting a stone that will one day be placed in the Temple of God. What you do, the actions you take, the choices you make, the paths you choose, the life you will live . . . is yours alone.
And it will effect others until the end of time.
Ethics is about deciding for yourself what kind of human being you will choose to become.

Tuesday, April 3, 2007

The Significance of Example

I can well imagine that every man can look back over the journey of his life and quietly remember in the days of his youth those men who had a positive and/or profound influence on him. In my own case, I would not ever want to forget them. I can remember thinking that such men were the very best of men; that such men were the men we were to look up to; that they must indeed set the standard for what men are supposed to be. The men who had the most impact on me were of my father’s generation. These were the men Tom Brokaw claimed in a recent best selling book as the “greatest generation.” To know men in that generation seemed very special to me. I thought surely these men had to be the best of the best. As a boy, I wondered if I could be like them.

But, in looking at such things from the past, we also have to have the perspective of the past. In my case, I was just a young man from a small town in northwest Oklahoma. It would not have seemed possible at such a young age to think of oneself as ever becoming well known or respected. Most of us adolescent males just barely out of puberty knew that it was all we could do just to try and make amends for the sins of our own adolescence. And I was dead certain I had born my share of iniquity.

Oh, it wasn’t that I did anything different than any other healthy red-blooded American boy. It’s just that almost everything I did could be counted as a sin by someone else’s moral standard. Back in my time, you didn’t have to actually commit a sin to be guilty. If you just thought about committing one, you were a sinner. And most sins of which I had any knowledge I rather enjoyed thinking about.

Unfortunately, it was also the bane of boys in small town America of my era to be constantly judged by stern-faced righteous looking old women who wore a perpetual scorn of mistrust upon their countenance, which seemed amplified by a pronounced, raised eyebrow which they quickly maneuvered into place whenever we came into their presence! The matriarchs of any small community had a way of knowing that men will be boys for the longest time before they finally become men. Their role in life, I think, was to keep us feeling guilty enough about being guys to compel us to hurry along the process of our own growing up so we could grow out of all the fun of life, and simply become men whom they could then control.

This brings me to the point of this rambling. Regardless of how we have been programmed in our past to learn, obey, and follow the cultural rules in which we were raised, part of the process of taking on the responsibility of manhood is to become aware that we are the same kind of men our forefathers were. Perhaps the moral training of the women in our life molded us to become good men. But we have all of the same qualities the generation before us had. We have the same passions, the same faults, the same shortcomings, the same biases, the same prejudices as our predecessors. We are, after all, only men. As the poet said, there is so much bad in the best of us and so much good in the worst of us that it ill behooves any of us to find fault with the rest of us.

In the overall scheme of things, what our past represents is really of little importance. If we feel that somehow we are not as worthy as the men who came before us, there is only one thing to do. We start making different choices about how we live and think and relate to others. Just as we are who we are today because of the choices we made yesterday; likewise, tomorrow will be the result of today’s choices. As the author Mary Crowley so rightly said; “We are free up to the point of choice, then the choice controls the chooser.” What she meant is that once we choose, our choices control us.

As we grow into responsible manhood, we have a higher duty to look after our own behavior in such a way that we will bring credit to ourselves and to our gender. We become the examples that younger men watch when they are deciding what choices they are going to make as they begin their life as men. We are supposed to be the right kind of men for them. Our hope should be that we will ourselves become the greatest generation—great by what we know; and great by how we practice what we know.

It is largely about commitment. What we commit ourselves to become will change what we are and will make us different men. It is not the past, after all, but the future that conditions us—what we do with what lies in front of us is far more important than anything that has already happened to us.

As men of integrity and honor and nobility, there is but one question to ask. What are our commitments going to be tomorrow? The day after? Where are we going? What are we going to do? Who are we going to be? What example will we set? What legacy will we leave?

These are our choices. Our choices will become our life.

And if we want to check ourselves as to the rightness of our own example, we need only to look back over our shoulders and commit to become the kind of men we thought we once knew. Perhaps unknowingly, those men have taught us that it is seldom who we are, but who others perceive us to be that defines our life. We behave in the manner that is congruent with the behavior of those we admire the most so that we can serve the role of modeling the behavior of those who will come after us.

This makes today a remarkable day in each of our lives. It is such a moment that, if we commit ourselves to the meaning of honor and integrity as men, then providence will move with us. And everything will change. As the poet so eloquently said:

"Be such a man, and live such a life,
that if every man were such as you,
and every life a life like yours,
this earth would be God’s Paradise."