JR'S Free Thought Pages
Book recommendation and review
by Johnny Reb
God on Trial: Landmark Cases from America's Religious Battlefields(2007)
by Peter Irons
"It is a truism that almost any sect, cult or religion will legislate its creed into law if it acquires the political power to do so." - Arthur C Clark
"Prayer has no place in the public schools, just like facts have no place in organized religion." - School Superintendent on The Simpsons, Episode #1
God on Trial is a fascinating and informative book by Peter Irons, a constitutional lawyer, political activist, civil rights attorney, legal scholar, professor emeritus of political science at the University of California-San Diego and author of several best-sellers including an excellent book called A People's History of the Supreme Court where he took a cue for the title from Howard Zinn. God on Trial is a revealing read, one the best I've read this year. It's a book that could only be written in the United States because it's only in such a rabidly religious country where it would be necessary to challenge incalculable religious violations of the Constitution.
The United States constitution has stronger wording on church-state separation than any other country in the world. But, despite this, Christian doctrine and dogma infuses every aspect of its culture. Christianity permeates almost every activity in the United States even in such mundane activities as sporting events, pre-meal rituals and club meetings. These are annoying and embarrassing to non-believers but the most serious problems are the violations of the Establishment Clause to the First Amendment. Their violations have infiltrated the schools and almost all aspects of the public domain, including the daily functioning of government at every level, municipal, state and federal. In the United States politicians rarely utter a sentence without some reference to God or Jesus and prayer meetings are a regular practice in the White House and other public structures throughout the country. President George W Bush was one of the most egregious offenders, regularly holding prayer meetings in the Oval Office He even prayed to God, beseeching him on the decision on whether to invade Iraq in 2003. Boy George must have had a direct line to the Big Guy in the Sky because as he admitted later, "God told me to strike at Iraq, and I did".
The Establishment Clause
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion” - First Amendment to the United States Constitution*
* The establishment clause has generally been interpreted to prohibit 1) the establishment of a national religion by Congress, or 2) the preference by the U.S. government of one religion over another. The first approach is called the "separation" or "no aid" interpretation, while the second approach is called the "non-preferential" or "accommodation" interpretation. The accommodation interpretation prohibits Congress from preferring one religion over another, but does not prohibit the government's entry into religious domain to make accommodations in order to achieve the purposes of the Free Exercise Clause. The clause itself was seen as a reaction to the puritanical and austere Church of England, established as the official state church of England and in some of the colonies, during the colonial era. This was especially true of the Puritans in New England.
As Irons notes, this history is not merely interesting, but doctrinally significant. The intent of the framers of the Establishment Clause, especially James Madison, played a crucial role in arguments over the Clause’s meaning. “No provision of the Constitution is more closely tied to or given content by its generating history,” according to Justice Rutledge’s dissent in Everson v Board of Education, the Court’s first Establishment Clause case. The Court decided Everson – holding that it was constitutional for New Jersey to spend tax dollars to pay the bus fares of school children in private parochial religious schools – only sixty years ago. Since then, the courts have made up for lost time; the Supreme Court has averaged approximately one Establishment Clause decision per year and the lower courts have rendered tens of thousands of others in the past half-century.
Because of the depraved mythology about atheism and widespread contempt for anyone professing disbelief or skepticism of Christianity, an admitted atheist in the United States could not get elected Deputy in a one horse town in Nevada. Despite being benign and innocuous (atheism is merely an expression of disbelief in the proposition: "God exists"). Unjustifiably, atheists are the most reviled and persecuted group in the United States with, for example, many having been denied promotion or even fired at their places of employment by admitting to being an atheist. It's about as inane as being persecuted for not believing in fairies.
If you have ever been curious as to how a high school football pre-game prayer in small-town Texas or the reference to God in the Pledge of Allegiance ("One Nation Under God") in an elementary school in Elk Grove California wind up at the U.S. Supreme Court, this is the book for you. Other cases include postings of the Ten Commandments in a small town in Kentucky, erections of huge Christian crosses on city lands in San Diego and the endorsement of "Intelligent Design" (a smoke screen for creationism) in high school biology classes in Dover, Pennsylvania. They are magnificently chronicled by Irons complete with interesting and eye-opening interviews with the key players such as Dr. Michael Newdow (a medical doctor, lawyer and professed atheist) who challenged the Pledge of Allegiance because he didn't want his daughter indoctrinated into any religion. It's a fascinating book, especially concerning the life of Dr. Newdow, a highly intelligent, passionate and articulate man who brilliantly argued his own case.
The author Peter Irons is very respectful and charitable towards all sides of the arguments and never editorializes or distorts. It would be an excellent text for an introductory law course as well as for anyone interested in the bizarre paradoxical and divisive cultural battles that seem endless in the United States. It's a very divided country.
Nevertheless, as in his earlier books, Irons’ sympathies are clear: he sides with the challengers in all of the cases he cites in his book. Although he describes his own religious background (Puritan, Catholic, Methodist, Presbyterian, Unitarian, and Jewish-by-marriage) and his current church membership (United Methodist), he candidly reveals his own anti-religion posture in some of the cases he discusses. Irons supported those who objected to San Diego’s forty-three-foot-tall cross towering over the city as a memorial to Korean War veterans. Irons not only wrote legal briefs but also – “on the spur of the moment” – reserved the park site for Easter Sunday on behalf of the Atheist Coalition of San Diego. When the sunrise event occurred, the featured speakers were from the Atheist Coalition, the First Unitarian Church, a Presbyterian church, the San Diego Community Church (with its “largely gay-and-lesbian congregation”), and Peter Irons.
Irons also backed Michael Newdow in his pursuit to have the words “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance declared unconstitutional. Newdow, a medical doctor and law school graduate, represented himself on behalf of his school age daughter. Irons, along with Edwin Chemerinsky (since named Dean at the new UC-Irvine Law School after a bit of unrelated First Amendment drama), edited Newdow’s “unwieldy brief”. Newdow was doggedly determined to argue his own case and practiced in moot court sessions with law professors serving as the justices. As Irons describes it, Newdow’s oral argument before the Supreme Court in 2004 was a testament to his tenacious preparation.
In one exchange during the trial, then-Chief Justice Rehnquist, following up on a question about divisiveness, probed Newdow about the 1954 vote in Congress inserting the words “under God” into the Pledge of Allegiance. Irons observes that Rehnquist was like a good prosecutor asking a question to which he already knew the answer. When Newdow accurately replied the Congressional vote was unanimous, Rehnquist “leaned back, a smile on his face and his point made.” The audience chuckled approvingly at this debater’s display of Rehnquist’s skill. Newdow’s quick rejoinder – “That’s only because no atheist can get elected to public office in our country” – triggered spectator applause. Rehnquist, Irons reports, “looked shocked,” and “growled” that the courtroom would be cleared if there were any more clapping. However, Rehnquist, a devout Catholic by the way, would have the last parting shot. The Court side-stepped Newdow’s claim, instead concluding that he had no standing to raise the rights of his school-age daughter because he did not have legal custody. As Irons reports, Newdow passed the California bar and is now representing other parents and children who object to “under God” as part of the Pledge of Allegiance.
One key point that was missed in all this is the rationale behind the very existence of a Pledge of Allegiance. Why are impressionable elementary school students in public schools compelled to recite any pledge of allegiance to their country, regardless of its content? A pledge of allegiance, in addition to other mindless utterances of patriotism, are hallmarks of totalitarian states, not liberal democracies. Ironically, the American Pledge of Allegiance was written by Francis Bellamy, a founding member, in 1889, of the Society of Christian Socialists, a group of Protestant ministers who asserted that “the teachings of Jesus Christ lead directly to some form or forms of socialism. As a socialist, Bellamy had initially also considered inserting the words equality and fraternity but decided against it - knowing full-well that the state superintendents of education on his committee were against equality for women and African Americans.
The original pledge read "I pledge allegiance to my Flag and the Republic for which it stands, one nation indivisible, with liberty and justice for all." The " one nation under god" phrase was inserted in the pledge during the paranoia and froth of the anti-communist witch hunts led by Senator Joe McCarthy during the early 1950s. In 1951, the Knights of Columbus, the world's largest Catholic fraternal service organization, began including the words "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance and were able to launch a successful lobby for its universal inclusion. It was also at that time that "In God We Trust" was included on all US currency.
Along with dozens of others, there's is a fascinating interview with Peter Irons on the Point of Inquiry web site here. You can download the mp3 file if you prefer. Right click on "mp3 download and choose "save as".
There is also 75 minute C-Span program featuring a lecture by Irons here: