A current US Supreme Court case highlights a fascinating debate. The topic? A pair of words in the "Pledge of Allegiance".
The Pledge itself is quite fascinating: it's a mindless 10-second exercise in pious recitation, most of the time, as performed by schoolchildren in front of an American flag. But the content of the Pledge is rich, both in history and philosophy. The 31 words:
"I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the republic for which it stands: one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all."
Hidden in there are all sorts of assumptions and tacit political theories, doubtless well-intentioned by their authors. A full analysis is far beyond my poor powers, though I must pause to doff my hat and salute that concluding clause --- such a noble goal for a people to to pursue! (Reputedly the original 1892 Pledge by Francis Bellamy almost included the word "equality", but the author sensed that that might be too radical a suggestion and dropped it.)
The fracas today is about two earlier words: "under God", added by Congress in 1954. In their genius the Framers of the US Constitution meticulously avoided mixing government and God; the word nowhere appears in that fundamental document, and in fact the very first of the amendments approved with the original Constitution draws a heavy line forbidding any official religion or favoritism toward a faith. Thus a major argument against saying "under God" is that it violates that separation of Church and State.
Yet a strong majority of people in the United States profess at least some belief in a deity. Many of the early settlers came in search of freedom to practice their religion. A mention of a supreme being, Pledge defenders contend, simply recognizes those historic facts and is a harmless nod in the direction of a shared national concept. They postulate that nowadays the words are said by rote, and shouldn't be considered a religious statement at all.
But there's a third position, one which is often overlooked but which a few parties to the current Supreme Court proceedings are undertaking to present. A reference to God in the Pledge is not, they contend, too perfunctory to fret about. Quite the opposite: the name of God is, and should be, of ultimate importance. To use it in a trivializing context is sacrilege.
President Theodore Roosevelt felt the same way about the motto "In God We Trust" on US coinage. Teddy saw it as blasphemy, a lowering of the Deity to the level of a slogan put onto crude instruments of commerce. The Congress overruled him.
Naughty language is something I try to avoid in conversation and in writing. Some of that is by longstanding habit, and some follows from deliberate comic intent, a faux Victorian style that I like to assume in order to entertain. But most of this stylistic nicety comes from a sincere desire to maintain a high standard of polite, civilized discourse --- and to reserve strong words for when they're truly needed, not to dilute their power by tossing them in like punctuation.
And if that restraint is important to practice for sexual or scatological terminology, how much more critical is it to preserve a word for the most serious, infinitely important concepts in life --- the name for the foundation of being itself?
Some things go without saying ...
(see also FairForAll (28 Nov 1999), OnDelegation (17 Oct 2000), My Religion (6 Nov 2000), Independence Day (4 Jul 2001), Cardinal Newman (4 Oct 2001), BearingWitness (17 Jan 2002), ForGreatJustice (1 Dec 2002), ImprovingMyMind (22 Jun 2003), ... )