Tuesday, October 11, 2005

To Pledge or Not To Pledge

There has been a lot of ink spilled in the last few weeks over a recent court ruling on the wording of the Pledge of Allegiance. It seems that the two words "under God" have generated a lot of heat between secularists and religious believers. Both sides claim dire consequences for the public life of the nation if the wording is or is not removed.

It seems to me, however, that there is a larger issue concerning the Pledge of Allegiance that deserves our careful consideration. A pledge is an oath, and the taking of oaths, in my opinion, is a very serious matter. I am not opposed to the idea of oath-taking. What I question is the assumption that having children recite an oath on a daily basis in taxpayer-funded schools is always proper, right, or wise. To be fair, I grew up reciting the Pledge of Allegiance in the various public schools that I attended, and I never gave this action much thought. It was just something that students did at the start of each school day, at football games, or at school assemblies. This daily occurrence in my early life did not turn me into a brain-washed citizen who blindly trusts the government. There is no doubt that one of the goals of public education is to produce a citizenry that makes positive contributions to the country for the good of the society. It is not unreasonable for that educational goal to include the inculcation of loyalty and duty to one's country.

Yet, because of the serious nature of oaths, I think it might be prudent to think through exactly what is being pledged. Words mean one thing and not another, so the wording of an oath is very important. When a person covers their heart and recites the Pledge, they are binding themselves to do that which they pledge. However, does the wording of the Pledge convey truth? Are the things to which a person pledges himself true? Is the united States of America a republic? Is this one nation? Is this a nation under God? Is this nation indivisible? Is liberty and justice available to all of the citizens? These are debatable questions which are capable of sustaining more than one answer, depending upon the perceptions and perspectives of those who think this or that about the questions. Are the political qualities numerated in the Pledge always desirable? Does this pledge function as an ideal to which the citizens promise to aspire? Or does it function as a statement of being; an assertion of current reality?

However one answers the questions, the missing piece seems to be the lack of understanding of the binding character of an oath. When a person takes an oath, he is binding himself to something he believes is greater than his own life. He is taking on a promise to behave and act a certain way toward something or someone, for which the breaking of that promise is serious and has tangible conseqences. The act of taking an oath also assumes that the thing or person to whom the oath-taker binds himself can fulfill its or his side of the bargain. Given the current voracious nature of modern government, I doubt that it is wise or prudent to swear allegiance to that same government. Such a government is happy to have its citizens' loyalty, it is can also easily take everything else from the citizen too.

As a Christian, I believe that an oath, a vow, or a pledge--they are the same things--is to be taken only for the most momentous and important aspects of life. My marriage vows are sacred because I pledged myself to my wife before God, who will judge me for my failure to keep that vow. My oath as a parent to raise my children in the Christian covenant given to them at their baptisms is just as momentous, for my pledge to God affects the eternal souls of my children. If the civil magistrate asks me to take an oath of honesty in any court matter, I am obliged to speak truthfully, because I have promised to do so in God's name. When it comes to pledging allegiance to political ideals or political realities, I doubt that the gravity is quite the same. The character of nations change. History is repleat with the rise and fall of nations who began with virtue and ended with corruption. There is every indication that the unique and virtuous character of our original constitutional republic has passed away.

Now, I am not willing to prevent the practice of the Pledge on a voluntary basis. Any principled commitment to liberty for oneself and other requires a great measure of tolerance (not in the politically correct meaning of that word, but in its original virtuous meaning). However, given the sensitive nature of the young, who always seek approval and to please those in authority, expecting a child of a dissenter to refrain from reciting the Pledge without tacit retaliation from peers, teachers, or others is naive. Is there a place for the taking of this Pledge? Perhaps. In the classroom everyday? I am not certain.

Friday, October 07, 2005

I am a libertarian

"...aspire to live quietly, and to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands, as we instructed you, so that you may live properly before outsiders and be dependent on no one."

"...Now to such persons we command and encourage in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living."

--St. Paul to the Christians at Thessolonica

In writing to the Christians at Thessolonica, St. Paul succinctly encapsulates a simple form of government: self-government. Christians are to govern themselves by living quietly, minding their own business, working with their own hands in order to earn their own living, setting a proper example for those outside the faith, and to be dependent upon no one. Perhaps St. Paul was a proto-libertarian; someone whose view of liberty tended towards leaving people alone to govern their own affairs.

The image of an ordinary human being making an honest living and minding his own business probably best displays what the vast majority of adults around the world do every day. The question Charles Murray, a noted advocate for political freedom, asks is "What does this person owe the government other than to keep on doing what he is doing?"

I, as a Christian, owe many things to many people and institutions--to family, friends, community, church, workplace. These obligations are always voluntary. I can choose to forsake those obligations and certain consequences will follow, or I can fulfill those obligations--called obedience--and receive benefit and blessings. In fact, when I do so, often times they cease to be "obligations" and become privileges; something I desire and want to do.

However, an obligation to the government is unique. When the government decides you owe something, that decision is backed by law. If you violate a law, a government can compel you by force, at the point of a gun barrel, if necessary, to fulfill your obligation. The right to initiate the use of physical force, usually called the police power, is what makes government different from all other human constructs.

What should people who are living quietly and minding their own affairs owe the government? Not much. This is the substance of what it means to be a libertarian. Notice that I use the word in the lower case. I am less interested in the development of an actual political party--which like most organizations, after a time, seeks to perpetuate itself apart from its purpose--than I am with living a quiet life while minding my own business. Anyone who makes an honest living and minds his own affairs isn't hurting me. He isn't forcing me to do anything. I as an individual don't have the right to force him to do anything. A hundred of his neighbors acting as a mob don't have that right. The government should not have that right either, except for stringently limited functions, imposed under stringently limited conditions. An adult making an honest living and minding his own business deserves to be left alone to live his life. He deserves to be free.

(Adapted from Charles Murray's book, "What it Means to be a Libertarian.")