Guest Column: It’s vitally important to respect all opinions

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, July 10, 2002


There has been a lot of notice in the news recently about the case of Michael Newdow. He’s the California atheist who challenged the constitutionality of the Pledge of Allegiance, on the grounds that the phrase, “under God,” is a violation of the First Amendment’s separation of church and state.

The whole thing, I think you’ll find, amounts to no more than a tempest in a teapot. I’m more concerned about another part of the Pledge – the word that comes next.

For the first 62 years of its existence, the Pledge made no mention of God. It simply said the flag stood for “One nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” But then came the Red Scare, which had much of the country worrying that Communism was quietly taking over the government.

In 1954, Congress, with the support of then-President Dwight Eisenhower, enacted a law that moved the first comma and inserted “under God” in front of it. (Most people pause after the word “nation” just as if the comma were still there, but phrase is supposed to be “one nation under God,” which gives it as somewhat different meaning.)

Whichever way you say it, it seems almost certain that “under God” will stay right where it is. Even the judges who originally voted to de-Deify the Pledge have backed away. But is the nation the flag stands for still as “indivisible” as it once was? Or has the flap over whether to allow a mention of the Diety in the same breath as the symbol of our country put a fresh crack into our national foundation?

Once upon a time, when Americans disagreed with each other, it was over substantial things like slavery, or the right of workers to unionize, or ensuring that all Americans are treated equally. These are the kinds of things that, in the Constitution’s own words, “form a more perfect union.” But too often now, we fight over trivial things. Some of our biggest fights have been over things that pull us apart, rather than binding us together. We are in danger of becoming Balkanized by people who insist upon speaking languages no one else can understand, or who demand that their own personal beliefs hold sway, regardless of the cost to the rights of others. And often it seems judges and Justices would rather be judgemental than judicious. Maybe it’s just easier to proclaim someone a victim than to seek out a solution that is fair to both sides.

It’s important that people with different and even highly unpopular ideas have access to public forums and to the courts of law. But efforts to prevent the tyranny of the majority have led to a tyranny of the minority where basic fundamental ideas become politically incorrect and the beliefs of almost an entire society must give way because somebody, somewhere, got his feelings hurt.

I learned a major lesson a few years ago from a 12-year-old girl. I was campaigning in my school board district, going from door to door, when I came to her house. I asked to see her parents. She said they weren’t home, but it didn’t matter; their religion didn’t allow them to vote, or salute the flag, or take part in any patriotic event. When the rest of her class salutes the flag, sings the National Anthem, or recites the Pledge of Allegiance, she said, she doesn’t take part. She just stands there, respectfully, until the ceremony is over.

One nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.

RUSS WISE represents District 8 on the St. John the Baptist Parish School Board.