Boston You gotta love Michael Newdow. No, actually you don't gotta love him. You don't even gotta like the combative zealot fighting to take two little words -- "under God" -- out of the Pledge of Allegiance.
Newdow is your worst fantasy in a custody dispute. The atheist has not only kept up a running custody battle with his daughter's born-again Christian mother, he's kept up a running battle with his daughter's school, his state and his government. Every morning when she pledges to one nation, under God, he regards it as a slap to his face.
Nevertheless on Wednesday morning, the emergency room doctor and lawyer put on a virtuoso solo performance in the Supreme Court. He brashly faced eight justices and left them with a tough choice. Is the phrase "under God" just a historical reference, a nod to a civic deity with no more religious significance than a post-sneeze god-bless-you? Or, are children pledging allegiance to one nation under monotheism, which could just be unconstitutional?
First, a little history for those who assume the pledge was written by George Washington. It was actually penned by Francis Bellamy, a Baptist and socialist, in 1892. Back then, the National Education Assn. was trying to boost secular public education over the parochial schools built by Catholic immigrants. It wasn't until the 1950s that Congress added "under God" as a nervous Cold War response to "godless communism."
Today Newdow is not the leader of some mass protest to return to the old days. About 90 percent of Americans want to keep the phrase "under God" in school, which is probably more Americans than want to keep lunch in school.
Even those who worry most about the separation of church and state don't put the pledge very high on their dance card. As someone who pledged before and after "God," I think this is a battle we could do without. So, it seems, do the justices.
Still, it was hard not to keep score in the courtroom. The solicitor general argued that "under God" is just a ceremonial acknowledgement of the framers' belief that "God gave them the right to declare their independence." Maybe so. But the framers' belief in the separation of church and state created the first secular government in the world.
Justice Sandra Day O'Connor said, "there are so many references to God in the daily lives of this country" that the words in the pledge have no more religious meaning than the words on the coin. Maybe so. But remember that adding "In God We Trust" was also a political sop to opponents after Lincoln rejected their proposal to insert Jesus Christ into the preamble of the Constitution.
Maybe too, as Justice Stephen Breyer pondered, the God in the pledge is so "generic" that it includes everyone, and so vague that it bothers no one. But Newdow was quite right in saying that a pledge to one nation under even the most generic God doesn't include people who believe in "no God." And maybe, as Justice David Souter added, it's "so tepid, so diluted ... that it should be under the constitutional radar." But if the phrase is so tepid, why all the passion?
In the end, the court may sidestep the whole issue by declaring that Newdow doesn't have the standing to bring the case because he doesn't have custody of his daughter. They can also decide that the pledge is less like a prayer than a Hallmark card.
But I keep thinking: Isn't this just the sort of argument over religion and patriotism that the founding fathers wanted to avoid? "It's always said that we're a religious people," says Susan Jacoby, who has just written "Freethinkers," a lively, engaging history of secularism in America. "But we can be a religious people without having a religiously based government. The men who wrote the Constitution said 'We the People' not 'We the people under God.'" And, she adds, "it's been a subject of dispute ever since."
One of the problems today, in post-9-11 America, is what Jacoby calls a "melding of religion and patriotism. The insistence that patriotism must be religious and to be religious is to be patriotic." And even if this case is way down my list of priorities, doesn't a Pledge of Allegiance suggest that you can't be a loyal American unless you believe in a nation "under God"?
What a pain this Michael Newdow is. Who needs this in the middle of an election? Why stir up the culture wars? Why make such a big deal of two little words? Aren't there bigger fish to fry?
Here's the problem. God save this honorable court (oops), Newdow is right.
Ellen Goodman is a columnist for Washington Post Writers Group.