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Allegiance to Government Schools

Mises Daily: Monday, July 29, 2002 by

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The June 26 ruling by a 9th Circuit appeals court that the phrase "under God" is an unconstitutional endorsement of religion in public schools has reignited the familiar debate in American politics on the proper balance between the rights of minorities and the desires of the majority.

Advocates of the ruling are predictably hailing it as protection of the "rights" of the children of atheists and religious non-Christians. These people claim that elimination of references to God is necessary to ensure that public schools are spheres of religious freedom. The supporters of the ruling point out that it was the desire to live free from official State religions that led to the founding of this country, and surely that is an American ideal.

The opponents of the ruling are equally vociferous. They argue (as has become typical since 9/11) that the government must always override certain abstract rights in order to fulfill its basic functions. The examples of government oppression in foreign lands are not relevant to our republic’s democratic institutions and checks and balances. As Judge Ferdinand F. Fernandez wrote in his dissenting opinion:

"[L]egal world abstractions and ruminations aside, when all is said and done, the danger that 'under God' in our Pledge of Allegiance will tend to bring about a theocracy or suppress somebody’s beliefs is so minuscule as to be de minimis. The danger that phrase presents to our First Amendment freedoms is picayune at most . . . upon Newdow’s theory of our Constitution, accepted by my colleagues today, we will soon find ourselves prohibited from using our album of patriotic songs in many public settings."

Amidst condom distribution and controversial multicultural curricula in government schools, the idea that the pledge presents a threat to children has been met with utter disbelief. In the eloquent words of Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.):

"That judge who shouldn’t be a judge in my opinion ... let me say this, that I hope his name doesn’t come before this body for any promotion. He will be remembered. He will be remembered. . . . I hope the Senate will waste no time in throwing this back in the face of this stupid judge. Stupid. That’s what he is, stupid."

As is often the case in political arguments, both sides are correct: The "under God" clause of the pledge does constitute a government endorsement of monotheism, and, at the same time, this endorsement is relatively innocuous. Consequently, there is no satisfactory solution to the question of whether the pledge (or Christmas trees, for that matter) should be permitted on the property of government schools.

Any list of principles set forth to decide such issues will be arbitrary and will ultimately rely on the "good faith" of "reasonable" judges to decide actual cases. In short, there is no solution to the content of government schooling except to replace the rule of law by the rule of certain men (i.e., the judges).

What is never challenged in the mainstream debate is whether education is a proper function of the government at all. Whoever controls the schools controls the next generation, and Americans who are ostensibly worried about oppression should not entrust their children to government propagandists.

 Those truly concerned about protecting individual dissenters from the tyranny of the majority should lobby for removal of the word "indivisible" from the pledge rather than the phrase "under God." For, as Ludwig von Mises pointed out, the classical liberal doctrine of self-determination is the only way to achieve limited government and lasting peace:

"The right of self-determination in regard to the question of membership in a state thus means: whenever the inhabitants of a particular territory, whether it be a single village, a whole district, or a series of adjacent districts, make it known, by a freely conducted plebiscite, that they no longer wish to remain united to the state to which they belong at the time, but wish either to form an independent state or to attach themselves to some other state, their wishes are to be respected and complied with. This is the only feasible and effective way of preventing revolutions and civil and international wars." (see Liberalism)

This focus on the right of self-determination is related to the controversy over the pledge. Only when the use of force is removed from the list of tools in our "education policy"--something that the advocates of government education refuse to even consider--will we see the end of heated battles over schools. Shortly following the above passage, Mises goes on to say:

"In most countries today school attendance, or at least private instruction, is compulsory. Parents are obliged to send their children to school for a certain number of years or, in lieu of this public instruction at school, to have them given equivalent instruction at home. . . . There is only one argument that has any bearing at all on this question, viz., that continued adherence to a policy of compulsory education is utterly incompatible with efforts to establish lasting peace.
"The inhabitants of London, Paris, and Berlin will no doubt find such a statement completely incredible. What in the world does compulsory education have to do with war and peace? One must not, however, judge this question, as one does so many others, exclusively from the point of view of the peoples of Western Europe. . . .
"[T]he problem of compulsory education has an entirely different significance in those extensive areas in which peoples speaking different languages live together side by side and intermingled in polyglot confusion. Here the question of which language is to be made the basis of instruction assumes crucial importance. A decision one way or the other can, over the years, determine the nationality of a whole area. The school can alienate children from the nationality to which their parents belong and can be used as a means of oppressing whole nationalities. Whoever controls the schools has the power to injure other nationalities and to benefit his own." (see Liberalism)

Ludwig von Mises understood that the education of children was an issue so important, and valued so highly by so many parents, that it could not be solved through political means. The introduction of compulsion into the market for schooling can only increase conflict and detract from the purpose of schools in the first place. The proponents and critics of the court’s ruling on the pledge have (largely) missed the point: Only when judges and politicians depart the scene will children receive the education their parents desire.


Robert P. Murphy, a Rowley Fellow of the Mises Institute, is an economics graduate student at New York University. See his Mises.org Articles Archive and send him MAIL.