The View From 1776

The Pledge Under God, Under Attack: Liberty vs License - Part One

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This is the first of several articles dealing with Michael Newdow’s challenge to the phrase “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance.  After reviewing the historical and philosophical background, we will look at what constitutes law and order in a good political society, and then at the issue as it has unfolded in Supreme Court decisions.

The case now before the Supreme Court is only the latest in a series of skirmishes in our cultural civil war that stretches back to the 1860s.  Reviewing the history and the philosophical rationalizations on both sides of the issue won’t change many people’s minds, but it may add to people’s understanding.  It will, at least, broaden our perspective when addressing the deliberations in the Supreme Court.

These articles will present the view that we are dealing, not simply with an individual right presumed to be inherent in the First Amendment, but with the whole fabric of society.  As with all fundamental social and political questions, humans face the inevitability of making choices between competing aims.

 

The implicit presumption in Mr. Newdow’s challenge is that we can have it all: individuals can do anything they wish, unconstrained by standards of social conduct, yet be shielded from any view that annoys them.  It is a contest between liberty and license, between civic duty and the selfishness popularized in the “me generation” of the 1960s and 70s.

The conclusion advanced by these articles is that preservation of moral codes of right and wrong conduct is essential for the purposes of the Constitution’s Preamble: “to…promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity…”  Moreover, that spiritual religion is essential to the preservation and teaching of moral codes, and that good government requires, not amoral secular humanism, but active support of non-sectarian spirituality and morality.

 

Ardent desires of individuals like Mr. Newdow may benefit them individually, but harm the whole of society.  Dissolution of morality dooms the future welfare and liberty of our posterity.

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The Historical and Philosophical Background:

As other postings to this weblog regularly point out, the social paradigm of Western civilization suffered a staggering blow in the misnamed Age of Enlightenment, the 18th century, capped by the French Revolution in 1789.  From this turmoil emerged the atheistic belief that civilization’s prior history had been an epoch of ignorance and superstition.  Intellectuals now hubristically declared that social, political, and religious institutions were simply creations of intellectuals’ minds.  That there was no such thing as a Divine order to the world, that humans had no God-given and stable nature.  Intellectuals would henceforward assume the mantle of God and reorder society, thereby changing and perfecting human nature.  To oppose them was to oppose the advancement of science.

One implication of this new outlook was amorality, the idea that there are no timeless principles of right or wrong conduct.  Above all, it was a repudiation of the deeply rooted human religious impulse to understand the mysterious order that clearly prevailed in the world and through history.  That was now the job of intellectual theorists.  Metaphorically, it amounted to cutting the anchor chains of morality that held the Ship of State off the rocks in a storm, on the presumption that intellectuals’ minds alone could tame the forces of nature.

As Plato’s antagonist Protagoras put it, man is the measure of all things, foreshadowing John Dewey’s Pragmatic philosophy, which taught generations of American students after the First World War that morality is a relative thing.  All that counts is whether your actions produce what you want.  In the larger picture, all that counts is enabling intellectuals like Dewey to acquire political power to impose their new concepts upon the whole nation.

 

Liberals professed a deep faith in “the people” and promoted the destruction of traditional social standards in the name of individual liberty.  Yet, paradoxically, they proposed to achieve this liberty by imposing a collectivized, all-powerful Federal government regulating potentially every aspect of human social and economic activity.

Those secular religious faiths came to the Unites States from France, via Germany and England, after the Civil War.  The contentious debate exemplified by the challenge to “under God” in the Pledge was commenced in England during the 1850s, while we were preoccupied with conflicts leading up to the Civil War.  Marx and Engels were in England writing “The Communist Manifesto” and other socialistic programs for revolutionary overthrow of traditional government.  Charles Darwin was writing “On The Origin of Species” at the same time, finally publishing it in 1859.  Darwin’s thesis was the atheistic proposition that there is no Divine order in the world, merely the chaos of random chance that accidentally produced various life forms through the mechanism of natural selection.

Jeremy Bentham and James Mill had been urging the Utilitarian philosophy upon the English people since the time of the French Revolution.  In that doctrine, the endeavor is to reduce government to a scientific and mathematical calculus so that laws may be designed to produce the greatest good for the greatest number of people.  Taking this approach requires ignoring the spiritual aspects of human social and political life.  If they are to calculate the greatest good, Utilitarians must reduce all measures of good to materialistic factors like food, clothing, housing, etc.  They must, in effect, assume that humans are little more than pieces of litmus paper responding passively to pain or pleasure deriving from satisfaction of sensual impulses, from hunger to sex.

Utilitarianism is, thus, closely akin to Auguste Comte’s Positivism and his Religion of Humanity that was being articulated in France at the same time that the foregoing was transpiring in England.  Were Comte to gain political power, government and business would become simply administrative bureaus run by educated managers and engineers.  Management decision would flow from the top councils of intellectuals who alone understood the Immutable Law of History that ordained the triumph of socialism.

What has all this to do with Michael Newdow’s objection to “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance?

First, with regard to Comte’s Religion of Humanity, which enjoyed a warm reception in England and in American academic circles, intellectuals directing political, economic, and social affairs, were to exercise their power by influencing public opinion.  Control of popular opinion was to be through manipulating the way news was published to the people and by requiring public education to teach whatever tenets of social justice the intellectuals might think appropriate.

 

A principle strut supporting Mr. Newdow’s case is that educated opinion is on his side, and the Supreme Court became on balance a mirror of educated opinion in the 20th century.  Education has been preaching the gospel of socialistic amorality, in colleges since the late 1800s, and in public schools since the 1960s.  Liberals declare that a President can be legitimately elected only by a popular vote embracing everybody: criminals, illegal immigrants, welfare dependents, the insane, and, most recently in California, 12 and 14 year olds.  But, in a matter such as removing God and morality from public life, educated liberals must reserve the right to trump the majority of citizens who want to keep tradition.

Second, this controversy is a continuation of the argument set forth by John Stuart Mill, the second generation leader of Utilitarianism.  In 1859, the same year that Darwin published “On the Origin,” Mill published his much admired and oft studied “On Liberty.”  That essay is the foundation of Mr. Newdow’s argument to the Supreme Court.  Mill asserts that suppressing the expression of any political, social, or religious view, however repugnant to majority views, will diminish society.  Today’s quackery, Mill notes, can be tomorrow’s truth.  The rough and tumble of public debate will lead us to the truth.  We must not be constrained by traditional understandings.

“On Liberty” implicitly sets individual license above public order.  Individuals must be permitted to do and say whatever they please, and society is simply to endure it, like a horse continuing to feed while swatting flies with his tail.  The problem is that those flies carry a lethal disease.