First Pledge

Out front on Michael Newdow's story, we become a target

When the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of Michael Newdow's lawsuit to strike "under God" from the Pledge of Allegiance on June 26, I just thought, "The crazy bastard pulled it off."

I had almost forgotten about Newdow, whose name I first ran across at the federal courthouse in Fort Lauderdale three years ago. It was there that he first sued the government, before moving the case to the more progressive Ninth Circuit in California. His basic claim was that the phrase "under God" violated his daughter's freedom of religion or, more aptly, her freedom from religion. And he meant business. The man combined a formidable education (degrees in law and medicine) with an almost fanatical will (which is the crazy part). His arguments seemed legally sound, and his methodical approach was marked by an almost preternatural patience. The last words in the article I wrote then came from Newdow: "I'm not going to stop banging my head against this wall."

That story ("Divisible, Under God," Sept. 30, 1999) was the only one written in the country about Newdow before he broke through the wall two weeks ago. And the republic was shaken up but good. Since the court ruling, knees have been jerking and lips have been flapping about Newdow from sea to shining sea. The pledge story led nearly every newscast and newspaper, and Newdow was quickly named Time magazine's Person of the Week. On the day of the ruling, members of Congress ran out onto the steps of the Capitol and recited the pledge, emphasizing the "God" part. And if that didn't have you reaching for a barf bag, then President Bush surely helped liberate your lunch with his decree that "we receive our laws from God." So much for the Constitution (which, incidentally has no mention of God).

Newdow listens to the wackos
Newdow listens to the wackos

While the politicians pandered, the media misfired. The ruling can easily be criticized, but there was an almost belligerent resistance by the talking heads to discussing the issue intelligently. Connie Chung was the poster child for this idiocy. Instead of sober analysis, a hostile Chung harangued Newdow on CNN with insipid questions like "Are you proud to be an American?" and seemed oblivious to the fact that he wasn't against the pledge, just the mention of God in it.

But Chung's reactions seemed positively enlightened next to those of some extremist Christians, who once again exposed their savage underbellies. They barraged Newdow with hundreds of death threats and hate mail. I know this not only because he shared many of them with the national media but because I received them too.

It seems that people from around the country jumped on the Internet after the ruling, found my 1999 story, and in lieu of reaching Newdow turned to me. They made me a surrogate Newdow, which is a scary proposition, considering the loonies out there. But overall, the reaction was balanced. A dead heat, in fact. Of the 54 people who wrote me (all but one came via e-mail), 24 wrote in support of Newdow and 24 were against him. Five didn't really voice an opinion, and one, a Rhode Island woman who described herself as the "wife of a devildog," was so weird I couldn't figure out which side she was on. (She suggested that the wives of ten military men be allowed to "go to town on" Newdow.)

Most of the supporters simply wanted to congratulate Newdow, though some did have an agenda. An organization called American Atheists, out of York, Pennsylvania, mailed me a sheet of paper titled "A Mathematical Proof of the Non-existence of God," which was full of equations. The only thing it proved was that American atheists have way too much time on their hands. And there were two e-mails from members of the U.S. Raelian Movement, including one from its president, Ricky Roehr. The Raelians are a cultish group that combines sexual hedonism with a belief that they are meant to welcome extraterrestrials to earth.

Strange stuff, but seemingly harmless -- which is more than can be said for about a dozen of the Newdow critics. A man who identified himself as Scott Sandlin wrote in the subject line of his e-mail: "YOU should be shot." I've written about mobsters, rogue cops, dirty politicians, and all manner of South Florida hustlers in the past, but I've never been threatened like this. Leave it to a radical christian.

Sandlin continued: "Screw you commi [sic] bastard. I don't give a damn about your beliefs, Christians founded this country, and you along with the terrorists want to take it away. Pat yourself on the back when America is destroyed and are ruled by the U.N...."

One e-mail, this one without a name, got right to the point. "FUCK YOU" is all it said.

Another fellow, identified only as Xhawk2, sent a message with the subject line "Get out!" Then he wrote: "You atheists are idiots.... You don't deserve to be Americans."

These people must have been angry I gave Newdow ink in the first place. Most of the e-mailers, however, were more interested in Newdow. A man named Randal Lundquist, who identifies himself as a Vietnam War veteran, sent this message: "Do you have an e-mail address for this moron? Maybe he's living in the dark and needs somebody to light a match to him to wake him up."

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