Saturday, November 10, 2007

Overview of book "Taking on the Pledge of Allegiance"

Reproduced as originally published in November 2007 Washington Secular Humanist newsletter.

"Taking on the Pledge of Allegiance" by Ronald Bishop. State University of New York Press, 2997, ISBN 0791471821

The book's Foreword, written by Nadine Strossen, has a good concise summary of both the lawsuit's assertions and the media's distorted characterization of the lawsuit. Newdow maintained that the public school policy of requiring teachers to daily lead the students in pledging allegiance to one nation Under God violated his parental rights to influence his young daughter's beliefs without the state placing its imprimatur on a particular opposing religious belief. Strossen writes "... he certainly did not seek to strip all religious references from public life, notwithstanding the widespread, overblown media accounts that mischaracterized his claims in these ways." "... the media tended to demonize him as an egocentric individualist who was taking advantage of his biological relationship with his daughter to advance his own ideological agenda." "... the media generally disparaged and trivialized Newdow's legal claims, implying that they had garnered the support of only a few judges on an allegedly--but actually not--extremist liberal court..." "In sum, the media coverage of Newdow's case wrongly impugned the virtues of both his legal claims and his motives in pursuing them."

Bishop starts by discussing "Frame Analysis". He says journalists utilized "several distinct frames to position Newdow as an erratic outsider who had the audacity to challenge one of this nation's most revered rituals in a time of national crisis." Next, under the title "Narrative Analysis", he promises to pay special attention "to what journalists invited their readers and viewers to think and to not to think about Newdow and his lawsuit." Lastly, "The Guard Dog Function" section accuses journalists of acting as "sentry for dominant institutions, patrolling the perimeter, searching for threats [in this case the threat is Newdow's lawsuit], and sounding the alarm when one is identified". This is the opposite of the better known "watchdog" role of monitoring "the conduct of public officials and large corporations, and expose corrupt behavior for the public's benefit" which journalists like to claim for themselves.

The next chapter discusses the history of the "Under God" phrase in the Pledge of Allegiance. This is very damning as it reveals the central role that anti-atheist bigotry had in the arguments made by the leading "Under God" advocates. With Eisenhower listening from the front pew, the Reverend George Docherty of the New York Presbyterian Church in Washington DC called atheists "spiritual parasites" that live off of the "accumulated spiritual capital of Judaio (sic)-Christian civilization" and "deny the God who revealed the divine principles upon which the ethics of this country grow." An atheists "cannot deny the Christian revelation and logically live by the Christian ethic. And if he denies the Christian ethic, he falls short of the American ideal of life." The 1954 Washington Post treated Docherty's bigoted sermon "like the act of a true hero." The New York Times also favored the Pledge revision. The Hearst newspapers went further, engaging in a relentless nationwide campaign to promote the revision to the Pledge. It is clear from their pronouncements that the advocates of "Under God" considered the addition of that phrase to be necessary because it was a statement of the Christian, or Judeo-Christian, character of the country and, ironically, to emphasize the difference with the Soviet Union whose government established atheism as a component of its official governing ideology.

This chapter also details the blunt arguments made by Newdow against Ninth Circuit Judge Nowinski who he characterized as not being the first federal judge to "have wounded America's atheistic religious minority due to contorted legal doctrine, his reliance on the prejudices of others does not save him here". Newdow argues that a federal judge must evaluate wrongs committed against dissenters "from the point of view of both the Constitution and the minorities they are sworn to protect" but he says the judiciary has chosen to "assault logic, invent sophistry, twist prior case law and completely disregard a denial of fundamental religious liberties because, as Judge Nowinski noted, 'no one wants to take that step'." resulting in disarray in Establishment Clause rulings.

The third chapter explains the arguments of both sides in more detail, pointing out the school district Attorney's failure to "address Newdow's contention that the policy and the Pledge contribute to the treatment of atheist's as second-class citizens" funded by his taxes. Newdow quoted Congressman Louis Rabaut, the 1953 author of the congressional resolution to amend the Pledge, as saying "an atheistic American is a contradiction in terms." He argued that the change made in 1954 was purely religious in nature, based on the invalid idea that "belief in God is morally superior to atheism." Newdow again slammed Judge Nowinski for his "ridiculous" statement that the Pledge would not be "perceived by [theists] as an endorsement, and by [atheists] as a disapproval, of their individual religious choices." This is followed by a description of the Ninth Circuit's ruling that the Pledge policy violated all three of the tests used to evaluate Establishment Clause claims and the dissenting opinion. There is a refutation here of the media's false claim that the Ninth Circuit was reversed more often than any of the other 12 circuit courts.

The rest of Bishop's book leaves no room for doubt that Strossen's Foreword contains an accurate characterization of the overall media coverage. Reporters quickly developed a "preferred reading" of Newdow's case, "one that would not allow for full consideration of his reasons for filing suit in the first place." The misleading journalism blitz cast Newdow and those who supported him as reckless zealots trying to purge God from public life. They falsely depicted the issue as a choice between supporting or opposing the Pledge with no middle ground. "Journalists reduced his challenge and the Ninth Circuit's decision to an opportunity for jingoistic chest-thumping and pathological name-calling." "Missing was even a passing acknowledgement that freedom of religion does in fact mean freedom from religion." The media trivialized Newdow's complaint, endorsing the "ceremonial deism" defense that references to God had lost their religious flavor after decades of repetition and reassured readers that the Supreme Court would almost certainly keep "Under God" in the Pledge. The mother of Newdow's daughter, Sandra Banning, was widely depicted by journalists "as victimized mother looking out for her daughter's interests."

The full Ninth Circuit ruling upholding the 3 judge panel's decision is covered in chapter 7. The media tended to falsely depict this decision as having "backed off" from the earlier decision. The accusation that this decision was an imposition of minority atheism on the majority became prominent in media coverage. Only one newspaper, the Seattle Times, sided with Newdow and the court. The argument that parents should determine how and when their children are exposed to religious messages received almost no coverage.

On to the Supreme Court and the debate regarding Newdow's standing to bring his lawsuit, how establishment was defined historically, and the religious or non-religious and inclusive or non-inclusive nature of the Pledge with the "one nation Under God" phrase. Coverage in the print media became more balanced, painting a more complete, less neurotic picture of Newdow. Coverage on television still depicted Newdow as "a publicity-obsessed zealot, bent on eradicating religion from our lives." Journalists still depicted Banning as the "good mother" and failed to explore the considerable support she was receiving from various right wing sources while implying that Newdow was exploiting his daughter.

The book ends with a discussion "On Being a Dissenter in America". Bishop writes "If we can take anything from Newdow's story, it is this: we must, as a nation, reintroduce ourselves to the notion that anyone can mount a challenge to a policy or law that is perceived to be unjust or discriminatory." He characterizes as disingenuous the assertion that we would be better off discussing "real problems instead of focusing on battles that have no significant impact on Americans' daily lives." He asks "When did the right ... to be free ... from the endorsement of religious expression by public officials ... become a secondary issue?" "Even though ... the nation was not going to rush to support Newdow; we--and the news media--at least owed him the chance to take his best shot."

Mr. Bishop is correct, the news media largely failed America here.

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