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).
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."
That veiled threat was merely aimed at his physical being. The threats on his soul were even scarier. Benton Ward wrote, "I hope that this Newdow wishes he was dead before his miserable life is over, and go to hell." Al White asked me to pass this along to Newdow: "If you don't repent, I pray that God torture you in this life and in the second one so that you will know for sure that God [exists] and He will kill your body and soul."
For real fire and brimstone, get a load of Jessica Campbell, who calls herself a "defender of the faith." She accuses Newdow of the "sin of witchcraft" for rebelling against God. Some excerpts from her sermon:
"The wicked shall be turned into hell... The game these atheists are playing is a serious one... God's judgment will fall on nations that forget him... If Americans think Sept. 11 was bad just wait to see what God will do next... Cry out... like our for-fathers [sic] did... and say NO KING BUT KING JESUS! If America doesn't repent, she will be destroyed!"
Shades of Jerry Falwell: A vengeful God was responsible for September 11 because he was pissed that we don't allow prayer in school or oppress gays enough.
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If the hate-mailers weren't urging Newdow to go to hell, they were telling him to get the hell out of America. A typical example came from Scott Steele, a "proud American disabled veteran," who wrote that Newdow should be "removed" from this country. He suggested that Newdow "go live with the Taliban." Another e-mailer, who didn't list a name, wanted Newdow shipped to Pakistan.
Let me spell it out for Mr. Steele: In America, we aren't allowed to exile people for their opinions -- or shoot them or set them on fire, for that matter. That sounds more like the Taliban.
Thankfully, not all the Newdow critics behaved as if they had recently been bitten by frothing raccoons. Some sounded downright reasonable. Like Joyce Hays. Her e-mail was headed "Prayer," and she wrote that she'll pray the Lord changes Newdow's heart.
God bless her, but I don't want Newdow to change. The bomb he's dropped on the status quo has made the world -- and my e-mail basket -- a little more interesting.