Macro-debates over religion in public life are usually grounded in micro-situations. Events that on their own local level seem insignificant often set into motion actions that reach to the U.S. Supreme Court or find the front pages. Thus debates over the coercive use of the Pledge of Allegiance in public gatherings -- the compulsory imposition of a religious affirmation that a particular citizen may not affirm -- overlook the personalities and contexts. Let's do a close-up today.
Sightings keeps its eye on religion and thus also on religious questioning, so we monitor a little magazine called The Humanist (July/August 2005). There, David Habecker of Estes Park, Colorado, gives his account of an incident that received a bit of national attention but deserves more. He brings all kinds of credentials to his role in an article on "How I Failed the Religious Test for Public Office." He writes that through twenty-eight years he and his wife "have raised a family, [and] actively supported our church, schools, and community," where he served for thirteen years on the town board. He was what others would call a good citizen and a patriot. Then some board members deftly inserted the demand that board meetings begin with the Pledge of Allegiance. That was too much for Habecker.
In his accounting, Habecker acted on conscience and did not make a demonstration. He simply sat quietly while others recited the Pledge. He was representing locals who had "differing conscientious objections" to reciting the Pledge, especially since the phrase "under God" had been inserted. In pledging, Habecker argues in his essay, "we acknowledge a god," which most Americans believe refers to "their Christian god." He found the forced pledging itself to be demeaning.
The advertisement calling for Habecker's recall, which he reprints, manifestly misrepresented him and his case and posture. He was recalled on a vote of 903 to 605. At his final board meeting, he pledged allegiance to the Constitution, kissed the flag, and sat down. He revealed that he and his son had become ex-Catholic agnostics, while his daughter had become a Jehovah's Witness, which meant that she, like them, could not recite the pledge, even under pressure.
Habecker may overstate slightly, but is he not right? What the recall petitioners were doing was violating the spirit and perhaps the letter of the Constitution. Article VI states that "no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or Public Trust under the United States." Here a test was being applied, and recallers supported the test-makers. No doubt nationally popular opinion would go against Habecker and, as he spells it out, against the Constitution. If this is a problem for "state," one would think it is also a problem for "church." Great Christians have said that it projects a loathsome image of God to have God's people coercing the profession of faith -- instead of seeing such profession as a free, voluntary, and, I'd like to think among believers, joyful act.
I've never over-worried about the insertion by the state of the words "under God" into the Pledge. But when confession of faith in this God is made coercive and becomes a religious test for public office, is conscience well served? Or has the main contribution been to punish non-hypocrites?
Martin E. Marty's biography, current projects, upcoming events, publications, and contact information can be found at www.illuminos.com. Original Source: Sightings A biweekly, electronic editorial published by the Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.