Every Nigerian knows that the Nigerian National pledge ends with the phrase “So help me God”. No big deal! That is what we were taught from elementary school and that is what everyone that has any reason to read the pledge says – Christian, Muslim or non-religious. It does not matter. At least not in Nigeria, despite the Sharia palaver.
In America, the country that is often refered to as God’s own country, a country with the motto “In God We Trust”, the mention of God in the National pledge has pitched Americans against one another and it is not funny.
Last Wednesday a U.S. Federal Appeals Court ruled that the country’s Pledge of Allegiance in public schools is unconstitutional because the “under God” portion added by Congress in 1954 improperly endorses religion. According to the court, the phrase “under God” in schools violated the constitutional separation of Church and State.
The 2-1 ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit in California stunned politicians and outraged religious groups. President Bush called it “ridiculous.” The U.S. Senate voted 99-0 on a resolution condemning the ruling. Shortly after that House members gathered on the front steps of the Capitol to recite the Pledge.
The man who started the palaver is an atheist who claims he was trying only to draw a line between Church and State. Michael Newdow, a Sacramento doctor who holds a law degree went to court to challenge the Pledge of Allegiance because his second-grade daughter was compelled to listen to her classmates recite the pledge at the Elk Grove school district.
Expectedly, the U.S media is going gaga over the ruling which some religious puritans in the country have supported. “Basically, everyone’s reaction was ‘What!!!’ with three exclamation points,” said Jim Murphy, executive producer of The CBS Evening News. “When it crossed the wire, everyone said, ‘What is this?'” said Fox News executive producer Bill Shine.
Reacting further on the ruling from Calgary, Canada where he is attending the Group-8 meeting, President Bush said that Americans had “received our rights from God,” and that Wednesday’s federal court ruling that the Pledge of Allegiance is unconstitutional reinforced his determination to put “common sense judges” on the bench.
Obviously upset with the ruling, the U.S. president said “There is a universal God, in my opinion,” Bush said. “The Almighty is, obviously, an important part of my life, but a very important part of the life of our country. And that’s why the ruling of the court was out of step with the traditions and history of America.”
Wednesday’s ruling has become an apple of discord for America’s newfound post terrorist attack unity. It has challenged the age-long belief that America is the “City on the Hill”, a country that has “A Manifest Destiny”, a country championing the forces of good against evil. The ruling which therefore throws the good “God” out of the window sure sounds ridiculous for a post September 11 America.
Historically, the Pledge of Allegiance was around for 50 years before the federal government got involved with it. Francis Bellamy, a Baptist minister from New York, wrote it in 1892 when he was 37. Bellamy was the chairman of the National Education Association’s committee for the observance of the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ landing. He also was an assistant to the editor and owner of The Youth’s Companion, a popular weekly magazine at the time.
Investigations reveal that this man who wrote the U.S. pledge built the anniversary celebration for school children around a flag ceremony, and he built the flag ceremony around his Pledge of Allegiance, which was published in The Youth’s Companion on September 8.
The wording of the original Pledge has been amended twice. The first time was in 1923-24. The American Legion and the Daughters of the American Revolution wanted to make the Pledge mandatory in schools. “Under God” was added by Congress in 1954 after a two-year campaign begun by the Knights of Columbus, a Roman Catholic service group.
Wednesday’s ruling throws all that history into the trashcan. There are, however, more to the Court ruling than meets the eye. While some have interpreted the decision as another effort to cancel the belief in the minds of some people that America is essentially a Christian nation, and by doing so appeal to the Muslim community and the Arab world, especially at this time, others see it as another twist in the on-going battle to remove religion from public sphere in America.
To be sure, over the years America has grappled with school prayer, intercom Bible reading, the teaching of evolution, the posting of Ten Commandments in schools and moments of silence.
The battle over “God” continues as the U.S. Supreme Court rules on another Establishment Clause case, deciding whether the Constitution allows government money to be spent on private or religious schools. The implication of this will be far reaching for it may lead to a situation whereby The Supreme Court would be forced to change its own ceremonial opening which declares “God save the United States and this honorable court”.
Media consensus is that “GOD” is still what Americans trust in and this much is reflected in the editorials of the major U.S. Newspapers after the ruling. For instance, The New York Times with the title, ‘One Nation, Under God’ says: “There are important battles to be fought virtually every year over issues of prayer in school and use of government funds to support religious activities. The decision is almost certain to be overturned on appeal. But the sort of rigid overreaction that characterized it will not make genuine defense of the First Amendment any easier.”
Similarly, Washington Post also pledges allegiance to separating Church and State, but not in the way suggested by the U.S. court ruling. The Newspaper in an editorial titled, “One Nation Under Blank” says: “If the court were writing a parody, rather than deciding an actual case, it could hardly have produced a more provocative holding than striking down the Pledge of Allegiance while this country is at war.
It adds, “We believe in strict separation between Church and State, but the pledge is hardly a particular danger spot crying out for judicial policing”.
This reads like comedy to many Nigerians who have had to read the Nigerian National Pledge that ends with “So help me God”. It is truly amusing watching this unfolding drama in “God’s Own Country” – a nation whose “almighty dollar” has the inscription “In God We Trust”. It makes one wonder how President Bush would have managed the situation if America were as religiously polarised as Nigeria, with the Sharia wahala. God Have Mercy!
This article was first published in The Anchor Newspaper of Nigeria.