Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

David Brooks on the Pledge, Citizenship, and American Religion

In "One Nation, Enriched by Biblical Wisdom," David Brooks shows once again why his New York Times columns are "must-reads" for our day and age. The topic: the constitutionality of the pledge of allegiance (oral arguments will be heard tomorrow by the Supreme Court). Brook’s opinion: a certain amount of religion in public schools is a boon for America. Why? The modern civil rights movement would not have been successful without its biblical foundation. In Brooks words: "If you believe that the separation of church and state means that people should not bring their religious values into politics, then, if Chappell is right, you have to say goodbye to the civil rights movement. It would not have succeeded as a secular force."

Commenting on a recent book by David L. Chappell, entitled A Stone of Hope, Brooks concludes that the optimistic view of human nature held by northern white liberals would have been insufficient to turn the tide in favor of federal legislation that put teeth into the constitutional bite of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments. What proved essential (according the Chappell’s research) was the pessimistic view of human nature held by southern black Christians. Their hope was in God, not man, to effect the change of human hearts that was necessary for the change in laws. As Martin Luther King put it, "The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice." It would not do so without the hand of Providence guiding men and women to this end.

Brooks argues:

Whether you believe in God or not, the Bible and commentaries on the Bible can be read as instructions about what human beings are like and how they are likely to behave. Moreover, this biblical wisdom is deeper and more accurate than the wisdom offered by the secular social sciences, which often treat human beings as soulless utility-maximizers, or as members of this or that demographic group or class.

He concludes: "The lesson I draw from all this is that prayer should not be permitted in public schools, but maybe theology should be mandatory. Students should be introduced to the prophets, to the Old and New Testaments, to the Koran, to a few of the commentators who argue about these texts.

"From this perspective, what gets recited in the pledge is the least important issue before us. Understanding what the phrase "one nation under God" might mean — that’s the important thing. That’s not proselytizing; it’s citizenship."    

Discussions - 1 Comment

Thank you for this article, Lucas. Where would American republican self-government be without the recognition of a higher authority as the basis for our liberty, morality, and natural rights? I think about the Declaration, the Bill of Rights, the Virginia Declaration of Rights, Washington’s "Farewell Address," Lincoln’s speeches (all of them from the summer seminar), etc., etc., and their basic agreement on the basis of the American republic.

The Civil Rights Movement, as Brooks notes, was firmly rooted in the African-American churches and religious songs. In addition, no one can read the "Letter from Birmingham Jail" or "I Have a Dream" speech and not be swept away by the beautiful rhetoric that is deeply rooted in the Western and Christian tradition. No Christianity, no Civil Rights Movement. Indeed, no God, no system of American self-government.

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