Blessed be the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, for it hath delivered the Lord from false patriotism.
I said as much last year when the liberal court in San Francisco declared that the words "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance are unconstitutional and shouldn't be recited in public schools. I'll say it again after a more moderate Supreme Court decided recently to take up the issue early next year.
My approach is different from the lawyers who will argue that the phrase is either an exercise in patriotism or an official endorsement of religion. As much as I'd like to liberate God from the pledge, I'd rather de-emphasize or even get rid of it.
As I've said before, as an American, I believe in liberty and justice for all. As a Roman Catholic I believe in life everlasting and the forgiveness of sins. But I don't believe because I stood at attention and repeated a few phrases every weekday in school or at Sunday Mass.
Religious or patriotic recitations don't work so simply, but the true believers want us to think so.
Sixty years ago, when the Pledge of Allegiance did not include a reference to God, the Supreme Court ruled that students had the right of free speech not to recite the pledge or salute the flag. The problem since has been that students don't know they have that choice.
From kindergarten through high school, I can't remember a single teacher or principal who turned to us and said something like, "This pledge is voluntary and if any of you youngsters don't want to say it, that's OK. We'll even protect you from a butt-kicking by the bullies during recess."
Most Americans probably don't know how God was inserted into the pledge: He was drafted during the Cold War.
The godless, communist Soviet Union had stolen Eastern Europe, China, the atom bomb and it was about to steal outer space. At the urging of arch-conservatives, President Dwight D. Eisenhower and Congress inserted "one nation under God" into the official pledge. Personally, I think it was a demotion, what with God already being in charge of the universe. From then on, no American could express his or her allegiance without believing God would guide the nation.
Religious or patriotic recitations aren't inherently bad, but they can become dogmatic in the hands of leaders or institutions that don't follow through with deeper teachings or worse, fail to practice what they preach.
When that happens, too many people begin to believe that merely stating their allegiance is enough, that living by the principles of their nation or faith is for saps or saints.
Go to any death row in America and you will find many condemned men who can recite the Pledge of Allegiance like angelic schoolboys. So can some of the corrupt executives serving time in country-club prisons for ripping off stockholders and pensioners. And what about the child-molesting Catholic priests and the bishops who protected them? Did they not begin each day professing their faith?
I actually enjoy reciting standard articles of faith with everyone else at Mass, but if I sleep through the sermon or fail to live up to that week's Gospel teaching, what have I accomplished? What has the church accomplished? Nothing.
The same goes for the nation. What good can result from compelling children to recite the Pledge of Allegiance if we do not give them honest history, if we do not teach them how to think for themselves, if the government violates its own ideals?
Ultimately, what I do with my faith and patriotism counts more than how many times I declare them. The real lesson behind the Pledge of Allegiance debate is that true faith and patriotism are lived -- not merely recited.
Joe Rodriguez is a columnist for the San Jose Mercury News. His e-mail address is email@example.com.