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Is God so small he needs a Pledge for validation?

Friday, June 28, 2002

They probably weren't aware of it at the time, but the House members who gathered on the steps of the Capitol on Wednesday to recite the Pledge of Allegiance were part of a tradition of civil religion stretching back 3,500 years when "one nation under God" really meant something.

Like the 450 priests of Baal driven to distraction by the "unbelief" of the prophet Elijah on Mount Carmel, our exceptionally devout Congress met the challenge posed by a panel of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals by calling down the equivalent of fire from heaven on the jurists.

As a sign of their great, defiant faith, Congress recited the Pledge of Allegiance declared unconstitutional that very morning by "atheist-coddling" judges. The House members were determined to prove their loyalty to the words, if not the spirit of Francis Bellamy, the socialist-minister-turned-journalist who penned the "godless" version of the Pledge in 1892. Of course, they did it in full view of the television cameras, where reality is routinely distorted and shamelessness is rewarded 70 times seven.

Determined to keep the puny god of American civil religion alive and kicking, regardless of the cost to constitutional integrity, the politicians weighed in with tough talk about every American child's right to spout the "godly" party line by rote.

To brains weighed down by excessive patriotism, any allusion to Chapter 18 of 1 Kings is going to seem wildly inappropriate. After all, we Americans are accustomed to thinking of ourselves as the New Jerusalem, the shining city on the hill of human history. We aren't used to thinking of our politicians as despicable priests of Baal, though there's never been any reason to think otherwise.

Still, Wednesday's grandstanding on the steps of the Capitol resonates with an Old Testament passage about the confrontation between the prophet Elijah and 450 priests of Baal: "And it came about at noon, that Elijah mocked them and said, 'Call out with a loud voice, for he is a god; either he is occupied or gone aside, or is on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep and needs to be awakened.'

"So they cried with a loud voice and cut themselves according to their custom with swords and lances until the blood gushed out of them. And it came about when midday was past, that they raved until the time of the offering of the evening sacrifice; but there was no voice, no one answered and no one paid attention."

What kind of vapid, nondenominational god are politicians so hell-bent on restoring to the Pledge of Allegiance? Would any self-respecting deity allow itself to be patronized by such opportunistic poseurs? What kind of god do these politicians imagine the American people want to pledge their allegiance to, anyway?

Would they prefer that we pledge allegiance to a piece of cloth twisting in the wind, or to the ideas for which it stands? Oh, what little faith they have if they truly believe our freedoms would be compromised one iota by forgoing all patriotic superstitions.

What god do they want us to pledge allegiance to? The god on the back of our money? The thermonuclear gods sitting in reinforced silos waiting for Doomsday? A god that would prefer that we were all enslaved to a pledge that has little or nothing to do with the spiritual lives of 275 million potential adherents? Is this a god worth demolishing constitutional protections and guarantees for?

When Baal, the national god of the corrupt empires that surrounded Israel, failed to rain down fire from heaven at the behest of its 450 priests, Elijah called on his God: "Then the fire of the Lord fell, and consumed the burnt offering and the wood and the stones and the dust, and licked up the water that was in the trench." Imagine that -- a God who doesn't need politicians for moral support!

As for the 450 priests of Baal, the chapter ends with them being seized and carried to the river. Because they were false prophets and deceivers of the people, they were unceremoniously executed by their former constituents.

I'm not suggesting that there should be any contemporary parallels, but it wouldn't hurt for our more shameless leaders to remember the former price of idolatry while rushing to restore "under God" to a pledge most of them don't take seriously anyway.

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