April 2, 2004

Symposium Held on Separation of Church and State

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As part of this week’s symposium on the separation of church and state, Prof. Issac Kramnick, government, vice provost for undergraduate education and R.L. Moore, the H.A. Newman Professor of American Studies and History and the director of the American Studies program, spoke last night about the use of the phrase “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance and the controversy that surrounds it. The two co-authored The Godless Constitution, which was first published in 1996.

The United States Supreme Court is currently considering whether it is unconstitutional to include the phrase “under God” in the Pledge, which is recited in public schools across the nation every day. Kramnick said that the Court is expected to reach a decision by July.

The Pledge was first drafted in 1892 in honor of the inception of Columbus Day. Kramnick said that it originally made no reference either to God or to the United States and that to its author, a Christian Socialist named Francis Bellamy, they key phrases were “indivisible” and “liberty and justice for all.”

Mention of the United States was added when the Pledge became common in the 1920s, and the phrase “under God” was not added until 1954, during the Cold War, as a reaction to the Soviet Union’s perceived godlessness.

Kramnick also said that despite the fact that the Constitution does not mention God, America has a very strong religious sense which permeates into our government.

“America has a secular governmental system, but we are very nervous about our secularism,” he said. Kramnick said that the Court could state that Michael Newdow, who brought up the case on behalf of his daughter, cannot bring the case because he does not have custody of his daughter, but he said that this would be “highly unlikely.” He said that the likely outcomes will be that it strikes the Pledge down an unconstitutional prayer, declares it as a prayer but declares it constitutional, or upholds its legality by calling it a “civic pledge” with a mention of God in recognition of religion in American history. “It is not an open and shut case. I think there is indeed some ambiguity,” he said, but added that the Supreme Court has often been very cautious in cases where children are involved.

Moore then spoke to the audience about religion’s role in America on a broader scale. He said that while America is not headed towards becoming a theocracy, religion is an important part of the country’s history. He noted that religious institutions enjoy tax exemptions, as do other charitable organizations, and said that he agrees with this practices.

Moore expressed a concern that America may be focusing on the wrong issues. If “under God” is struck from the Pledge, he said, a backlash might be able to push religious language into the Constitution itself, which he said would replace a relatively trivial problem with a much more significant one.

“The question is whether or not it might be better to let these sleeping dogs lie,” Moore said. “It’s a tough call, actually,” he added.

The lectures were followed by a question and answer session. Prof. Richard Baer, natural resources, said that he felt that Kramnick and Moore’s “whole case relies on a very narrow definition of religion” and that movements such as humanism and moral relativism, which he said could be considered religions themselves, are taught to children in public schools and directly contradict many other religions.

“We were pleased that professor Baer had an opportunity to offer his contentious views,” Kramnick said later.

Audience members seemed to find the lecture and discussion interesting.

“I thought it was very intellectually simulating to listen to them,” said Joanne Ruppel, who read about the symposium on TheocracyWatch’s web site and came from Albany to attend the week’s events.

Kramnick and Moore invited future symposiums on similar matters to include more speakers such as Baer, saying that it is always interesting and beneficial to all to debate such issues. “I enjoy these sorts of things,” Moore said. “[But] part of the problem is you’re speaking to people who basically agree with you.”

Archived article by Yuval Shavit
Sun Staff Writer