By What Authority?
There is a great principle at the heart of the movement to strike the words "under God" from the Pledge of Allegiance—and from our national customs, our currency, and our public ceremonies. It has very little to do with atheism. It has a great deal to do with authoritarianism.
The philosophy behind America's founding is unique among those of the nations of the world because of a bedrock principle that was given expression by words in the Declaration of Independence that are old and familiar, and yet not often pondered these days.
In the American view there is a certain group of rights that are accorded absolutely and equally to every individual and that cannot be alienated. The existence of these rights is beyond debate—"self-evident," in the words of the Founders. And their source is supreme—the "Creator." "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights."
What are these rights? They are rights that exist as a condition of human life itself. If an individual were alone in the world, the rights he would have are those rights the Founders traced to "the laws of nature and of nature's God." In their words, "That among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." The right to the fruit of our own labor, the right to express our own sentiments, the right to defend ourselves, the right to live our lives according to our own best lights—in a word, freedom..
But how do we secure these rights in a world where others seek to violate them? We form a government servient to these God-given rights, or more precisely, a government under God. "That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men. . . " In the American view the only legitimate exercise of force by one individual over another, or by a government over its people, is in the defense of these natural rights.
This concept is the foundation of American liberty. And because it defines limits to the powers of government, it is supremely offensive to the radicals of the left. They abhor the words "under God" because these words stand in the way of an all-powerful state.
The French and American revolutions were waged on precisely the same declared rights of liberty and equality. One was a ghastly failure that ended in the Reign of Terror; the other, a magnificent success. Why?
In the philosophy of the French Revolution the rights of human beings were defined by a governmental committee and extended at the sufferance of that government. In the American view these rights come from God. Their existence is preeminent, and their preservation is the principal object of government.
If the source of our fundamental rights is not God, then the source becomes people—or more precisely, a government of people. And rights that can be extended by government can also be withdrawn by government.
Words matter. Ideas matter. And symbols matter. The case now before the Supreme Court over the Pledge of Allegiance must not be devalued as a mere defense of harmless deistic references and quaint old customs. The principle at stake is central to the very foundation of the American nation and the very survival of its freedoms.
Senator Tom McClintock represents the 19th Senate District in the California State Legislature. He writes from Sacramento, California.
Inspiring words from a leading political figure. There is a lot at stake in the Pledge of Allegiance debates. His essential point of authority is insightful. There is, of course, a danger in the way some argue that the U.S. government is founded on Christianity. That is not so, and was never intended to be so. The United States arose out of a society that had many shared Christian assumptions, and the framers of the Constitution were acutely aware that government authority derives from a higher power. But the government itself was intended to be a secular system, separate from religious power and control. Editor.