Pledges, Mottos, and Prescriptions

by Luke Muehlhauser on January 5, 2010 in Ethics

allegiance

The ethical theory I currently defend is desirism. But I mostly write about moraltheory, so I rarely discuss the implications of desirism for everyday moral questions about global warming, free speech, politics, and so on. Today’s guest post applies desirism to one such everyday moral question. It is written by desirism’s first defender, Alonzo Fyfe of Atheist Ethicist. (Keep in mind that questions of applied ethics are complicated and I do not necessarily agree with Fyfe’s moral calculations.)

cloud_break

2010 is an election year. This year, we will discover that a very powerful social filter – one that is 99.99 percent effective at keeping open atheists out of public office – will continue to be just as effective.

Desirism holds that social tools such as praise and condemnation can be used to mold malleable desires. It holds that these tools should be used to promote desires that tend to fulfill other desires, and inhibit desires that tend to thwart other desires.

However, one of the areas in which these tools of praise and condemnation are used is to support a society in which elected offices are reserved only for those who affirm a belief in God – one in which those who do not believe in God are effectively and efficiently banned.

Specifically, the government in its Pledge of Allegiance tells us, each and every day, and even makes it a mandatory practice in each school starting at the youngest grade, that a good American supports a nation ‘under God’. It tells us – it tells our children – that not supporting a nation under God is as un-American and as worthy of condemnation as supporting rebellion, tyranny, and injustice.

The government, in its national motto, tells us – and tells our children – that good Americans trust God. The phrase, “In God We Trust” quite simply translates into, “You are not to think of a person who lacks trust in God as being one of us.” Of course, if those who lack trust in God are not one of “us”, they are certainly not fit to hold public office.

Let me be clear. I do not think that anybody should be elected to public office because he is an atheist. I do not even think that, all else being equal, the atheist candidate is to be preferred to the candidate who believes in God.

However, the government itself has set up a culture where even the best and most qualified atheists for public office stands virtually no chance of getting elected if put up against a candidate who believes in God.

Let a candidate remain seated during the Pledge of Allegiance, or refuse to state it, because he cannot in truth pledge allegiance to a nation under a God that he thinks does not exist, and see what this will do to his chance of getting elected. Let an atheist run for public office and wait for the campaign to start that points out the absurdity of electing somebody into public office who thinks that the national motto is a myth.

Quite simply, the Pledge of Allegiance tells people – particularly young children – that there are four great anti-American evils in the world, that no good American would support. They are listed, in order: Atheism, Rebellion, Tyranny, and Injustice.

There are those who argue that though the Pledge of Allegiance is a pledge to a nation ‘under God’ that this does not mean that there is anything wrong with not believing under God. According to this argument, the Pledge of Allegiance simply states a descriptive fact that America happens to be a nation under God, but if we were not a nation under God, that would be okay too.

This is nonsense. The Pledge of Allegiance is prescriptive. It does not say we ARE a nation ‘under God’. It says we SHOULD BE a nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.

In fact, the pledge was invented more than three decades after the civil war when the younger generations simply did not know the horrors that their parents and grandparents had lived through. “Indivisible” exists in the Pledge of Allegiance as a way of getting children to refuse to support another rebellion, with all of the horrors that come along with it.

And the words ‘under God’ were added in the 1950s as a part of the Cold War in order to denigrate godless communism. The idea here was to get children to pledge allegiance to a nation ‘under God’ in order to put up a social barrier that would hinder their tendency to accept the godless philosophy of the Soviet Union.

As with all acts of bigotry and prejudice, they cast their nets far too wide, and captured a lot of good and decent Americans in their lesson of intolerance.

Others argue that because there is no obligation to say the Pledge that no harm is done. “If you don’t like it, then just don’t say it.”

However, as I wrote above, what are the chances of a person who does not say the Pledge earning public office? The Pledge is an effective filter that ultimately holds the vast majority of elected offices in reserve for those who support a nation under God. It tells children from their first day in school, “If you do not trust in God, then you are a fool to think that you have a place in government in this country.”

Imagine if we had a pledge of allegiance to ‘one nation, without any black people.” Now, somebody comes along and says, “Because black people don’t actually have to say the Pledge of Allegiance, they have no reason to object to what it says.”

Clearly, this is absurd. It does not matter whether black people are required to say such a pledge or permitted to refrain. The Pledge itself would be one that generates hostility towards black people – decreasing their chances for social advancement and, in particular, their chance of holding public office. The bigotry and prejudice is there whether black people are required to say such a pledge or not.

The same lessons can be applied to the National Motto.

Again, the argument is that the Motto is merely descriptive. It describes America as being a nation whose people happen to trust in God, but it does not say that there is anything wrong with not trusting in God.

Sure.

And the Marine motto, Semper Fi is merely a description that Marines happen to be faithful towards their brothers and sisters in arms. It does not say that there is anything objectionable with being a Marine who is not faithful towards their brothers and sisters in arms.

Hogwash. The purpose of a motto is not to describe the qualities of a group as if there is nothing wrong with lacking those qualities. It is to prescribe the qualities of a group while, at the same time, identifying those who lack the qualities in question as unfit to be members.

The Marine motto, Semper Fi states that anybody who is not faithful to their brothers and sisters in arms is not fit to be called a Marine.

Similarly, the national motto, In God We Trust says that anybody who does not trust in God is not fit to be called an American.

This is what the sign says – on the money, on the classroom wall, and in the city council chambers. It is a constant message to all Americans, and particularly its children, that “those who do not trust in God are not fit to be called one of us. We trust in God. Those who do not trust in God are not fit to be thought of as one of us.” It is much like saying, “We are always faithful. Those who are not always faithful are not fit to be thought of as one of us.”

These tools of praise and condemnation, then, are effectively used to make sure that atheists remain second-class citizens. It holds elected office in reserve to those who trust in God, and segregates out those who do not.

However fancy one wants to get in one’s interpretations, one thing to keep in mind is that the Pledge and the Motto target children. Their purpose is to set particular attitudes towards atheists in the minds of children at a stage of development when children give them emotional significance.

Trust in God and supporting a nation ‘under God’ comes with the comfort of acceptance and belonging, while its opposite means being considered someone outside of and less acceptable than those identified by these phrases as “good Americans.”

We will see in 2010 that these practices of praising those who support a nation under God and trusting in God, while condemning those who do not have these qualities as being un-American or even anti-American, will continue to have their effect of filtering atheists out of public office.

- Alonzo Fyfe

Previous post:

Next post:

{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

Haukur January 5, 2010 at 9:00 am

This year, we will discover that a very powerful social filter – one that is 99.99 percent effective at keeping open atheists out of public office – will continue to be just as effective.

99.99 percent? So, for every ten thousand open atheists that would like to gain elected office only one will succeed? Surely that’s an exaggeration. The US Congress elected in 2008 has 435 members, of whom one (Pete Stark) is an open atheist.

The United States also has a devotee of Týr and a devotee of Artemis holding public office.

  (Quote)

Ben January 5, 2010 at 11:52 am

Haukur,

I think the point still stands. 1 in 435 isn’t much better.

  (Quote)

Alonzo Fyfe January 5, 2010 at 1:01 pm

The total count of all federal and state legislative bodies is over 5000. So, this particular filter has only allowed 1 open atheist to enter any of these positions out of over 5000 positions avialable.

  (Quote)

lukeprog January 5, 2010 at 2:37 pm

I swear there are a few state-level atheists, but I can’t think who, now.

  (Quote)

Kutuzov January 5, 2010 at 3:00 pm

Slighty off-topic, I was happy to note recently, when performing my civic duty as juror (in Australia), that I was given a choice to either swear on the bible (which I would have refused if it was my only option) or make a solemn declaration instead:

“to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, under penalty of law for perjury”

Apparently religions other than Christianity are also allowed to swear an oath on whatever holy book they like.

  (Quote)

CRL January 5, 2010 at 8:26 pm

Compared to rampant creationism, anti-atheist discrimination, and religiously influenced legislation, two words in the pledge of allegiance are the least of our problems. If we take them out, what will happen? Nothing whatsoever. No one’s belief will change (not that it’s the governments place to change belief). No one will think any better of the atheists.

Instead of wasting our political capitol on two words in the pledge, we should work on improving our public image, fighting ignorance, religious or otherwise, and enforcing separation of church and state where it really matters.

  (Quote)

Briang January 6, 2010 at 10:16 am

Kutuzov: Slighty off-topic, I was happy to note recently, when performing my civic duty as juror (in Australia), that I was given a choice to either swear on the bible (which I would have refused if it was my only option) or make a solemn declaration instead:
“to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, under penalty of law for perjury”Apparently religions other than Christianity are also allowed to swear an oath on whatever holy book they like.  

This is an issue where, I think it may be difficult for us to find common ground. How is it fair for a Christian to have to swear before his personal God and subject himself to divine punishment upon his failure to keep his oath, while the atheist merely makes a promise?

It seems to me that gulf is too wide to say that these are comparable. On the one hand, it’s not fair to the Christian because he has to subject himself to a higher commitment then the atheist. On the other hand, it also seems unfair to the atheist, since he might not be trusted as much on the ground that he merely makes a promise, while the Christian takes an oath.
The whole procedure only makes sense if everybody’s doing the same thing.

  (Quote)

Rick January 6, 2010 at 10:49 am

Briang:
How is it fair for a Christian to have to swear before his personal God and subject himself to divine punishment upon his failure to keep his oath, while the atheist merely makes a promise?It seems to me that gulf is too wide to say that these are comparable.

I completely agree. The Christian (or Muslim, Jew, etc.) make a promise to an imaginary, self-contradicting, inconsistent and manic anthropogenic cultural myth, while the atheist makes an oath on his (or her!) own assertion and strength of character. Now, if the Christian lies, and the atheist lies, the civic penalty is completely different as well: the Christian goes to jail for lying to God and man, while the atheist goes to jail for lying.

The whole procedure only makes sense if everybody’s doing the same thing.

Absolutely. And they are, but some seem to believe they’re not good enough on their own to tell the truth.

  (Quote)

Charles January 6, 2010 at 11:10 am

Unfortunately, I think this comes down to the myth that you can’t be moral without God. You want your public official to be ethical. Atheists are immoral. Therefore, …

Even my parents believe this.

  (Quote)

lukeprog January 6, 2010 at 11:13 am

Charles,

I’m way too honest to be a politician. People hate honesty.

  (Quote)

GIZZEL November 30, 2010 at 5:17 pm

Haukur,I think the point still stands. 1 in 435 isn’t much better.  (Quote)

  (Quote)

GIZZEL November 30, 2010 at 5:20 pm

MY MOM BELIVES GOD GOOD

  (Quote)

Leave a Comment