In September of 2002, a group of Buddhists in Hawaii wrote to President George W. Bush to express their view about public school use of the phrase "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance.
The Buddhists agreed with a federal appeals court ruling that barred the recitation of the Pledge in public schools because of its religious content ("under God") and urged Bush to support the Constitution.
Two months later, the Buddhists received what was probably a form letter in reply. The president's missive read in part, "As citizens recite the Pledge of Allegiance, we help define our Nation. In one sentence, we affirm our form of government, our belief in human dignity, our unity as a people and our reliance on God....When we pledge allegiance to One Nation under God, our citizens participate in an important American tradition of humbly seeking the wisdom and blessing of Divine Providence."
The intent of Bush's words is clear: love of country, love of humanity and love of God are inextricably linked. The nation's top elected official has thus decreed that religion is an integral component of American governmental life.
But the president's letter ignores the constitutional principle of church-state separation and brushes aside the diversity of America. Buddhists do not believe in a personal God. Atheists and Secular Humanists don't believe in God at all, while agnostics believe it is impossible to know if God exists. Adherents of nature-based faiths see the Goddess all around us, while polytheists worship many gods. None of these people would agree with the religious affirmation of the Pledge. Does that make them all somehow less American?
And Bush should also realize that many devout Christians and other religious persons believe deeply in God but do not want to see the deity turned into some sort of national mascot. That borders on idolatry.
Many recent U.S. political leaders have assumed that generic references to God and religion are acceptable to everyone. They are not. Lots of patriotic Americans are offended by them; these people are angry at having their loyalty to the country questioned because of their religious beliefs or lack thereof.
Such examples of "civil religion," we are told, are a unifying force for the nation. Actually, they are the exact opposite divisive. Bush's reply to the Buddhists, in which he offers them nothing but second-class citizenship or at best a back seat in the "This-is-a-Religious-Nation" bus, proves that.
In the Pledge of Allegiance case, the Supreme Court has been given a rare opportunity to state that one does not have to share a majority religious view or any religious view, for that matter to be a good American. Let's hope the justices take it.