A Reflection Essay: Exploring Religion Conflict and Political Beliefs

Subject: Religion
Type: Reflective Essay
Pages: 5
Word count: 1280
Topics: Christianity


In I Pledge Allegiance: Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Crisis over Loyalty, Nussbaum presents how Americans’ struggle for religious equality hasn’t been fruitful since religious equality is not yet met. Minersville school District v. Gobitis, on the other hand, is a religion struggle against the political beliefs of the 1940s. The Jehovah’s witnesses did not participate in the practice of raising their palm salutes since it was against their beliefs. These two cases present the denial of religious freedom. The majority of the politicians have incorporated their Christian foundations in education policy as well as on constitutional authority. Freedom of religion has hence been continually denied throughout the United States.  New laws that favor religious freedom and equality are believed to have the ability to bring order in the country and do away with the pain inflicted by the old laws. This essay addresses two cases where conflict emerged between political and religious groups.

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O’Connor’s Four Criteria

I understand that the four criteria are meant to make people realize that the Pledge of Allegiance does not go against the constitution. Considering the fact that several religious groups are present in America however, I think that Justice O’Connor’s four criteria are not properly explained. It is true that the Pledge of Allegiance can be traced back into the country’s history but making other religions recite words that they don’t believe in is not right. This practice is more like judging other people’s beliefs and even forces children to hide what they feel or believe in while reciting the words of the pledge. 

Both “under God” and “in God we Trust” symbolize the Americans recognition of God. “In God, we Trust” was introduced in 1864 to represent the acknowledgment of God in the American national motto. The “under God” pledge emerged in the Cold War period as part of the cultural war against the godless communism or the Soviet Union. The original supporters of the phrases recognized them as symbols of support for patriotism. They expected that the phrases should be passed from one generation to the next. It is because of this that public schools were required to ensure that children recite the Pledge of Allegiance on a daily basis (Nussbaum, 2008).

“Under God” expresses that the nation is subject to God’s judgment while “In God, we Trust” in the statement that the nation depends on God.  These expressions belong to Christian beliefs and indicate that America is a monotheist nation. The phrases exclude nonbelievers as well as other believers like Hindus, Buddhists, and Muslims, among others. Both expressions burden the non-Christians by subjecting them to recite words that contradict their religious. This happens to both children and adults who are influenced into saying things that they do not believe are real and even into practicing what they do not agree with. 

The two expressions are part of the Americans daily activities. Children recite the Pledge of Allegiance with “under God” every day while citizens on a daily basis use currency with the words “In God we Trust.” “Under God” is more emphasized by the government and private organizations that distribute flags to all schools and classrooms though unwilling students are not forced to recite the words. “In God, we Trust” is simply a phrase printed on the dollar and no one is forced to recognize it. Though many nonbelievers do not like the phrase on the currency, they willingly use the dollar (Nussbaum, 2008).

The Two Short Pieces versus previous readings by Nussbaum or Hammond

The two short pieces and the previous readings present the existence of pluralism and the need to accommodate pluralism. Political leaders are expected to recognize for example that there are other religious groups apart from Christianity that gets so much attention. The political leaders need to allow each minority religious group to exercise their beliefs regardless of their large numbers. These readings also portray liberalism where equality is emphasized. After recognition of various religious beliefs, equality should be ensured. 

There is also the presentation of conflict between pluralism and liberalism in both cases. Gray explains that pluralism undermines the universalism of liberal tradition. They finally indicate the need for pluralism to exist alongside liberalism (Gray, 1993). The difference is that the two short pieces present specific cases of political versus religious conflicts and struggle for religious freedom. While Nussbaum tackles the conflict with Mennonites, Minersville v. Gobitis (1940) is about the clash between Jehovah’s Witness and the politicians.

Law as a Delicate Matter

Nations face issues with religious toleration as well as respect. A study of the US constitutional tradition of religious freedom shows that it requires equal respect for conscience, something that the government is not willing to grant. It is true that this tradition which refuses to do away with aspects of national unity and security is very important for the country, but it should be realized that this is the origin of the conflicts with the minority religious groups (Nussbaum, 2000). 

For religious freedom to exist in this environment, the politicians must first accommodate religious stands and establish or obey laws that individual feelings and beliefs. The public acknowledgment of Christian beliefs in public events, school prayers, and public funding shows how insensitive the government has become. The minority religions are forced to abide by terms that contradict with their personal points of view. Religious liberty is the only way to ensure that the public becomes sensitive about religious issues (Nussbaum, 2000).

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Minersville v. Gobitis (1940) case

This was a time when the German government required citizens to salute the Nazi flags in schools and during public events. Jehovah’s Witness disobeyed this rule which saw thousands of them being moved to convention camps. American leader of Jehovah Witness, Joseph Rutherford, denounced compulsory flag salute laws in America in 1935. Following his advice, many believers refrained from reciting the words of the Pledge of Allegiance. This did not last for long though as the political leaders believed that national unity was the tool for national security. No individual was therefore allowed to go against the constitutional authority. Patriotism was only evident from saluting the flag, the actual symbol of national unity. In 1940, Justice Harlan Fiske Stone wanted the Court to support the First Amendment that agreed to provide freedom of religion and go against Frankfurter. This happened because Stone did not agree that the Constitution defended civil liberties (Minersville v. Gobitis, 1940). 

The court, however, denied the change of political stand so that the nation moved into war. Members of Jehovah’s Witness were mistreated nationally where their meeting places were burnt and their leaders expelled. When such hostilities were published in newspapers, these religious members decided to fight the Court. In 1943, the Court accepted a different case of flag salute known as West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette. The three justices that earlier supported Gobitis decided to join Stone. The Court, therefore, reversed the earlier decision and supported the First Amendment so that nonparticipation in flag salute became acceptable (Minersville v. Gobitis 1940).


I find Nussbaum’s analysis convincing in many ways. Christianity appears as the major religion which has gained the support of politicians such that the minorities’ religious affiliations have been ignored in the US. This work also points to the need for adoption of a view that accommodates the plurality of religions and grants citizens the freedom to practice their religious beliefs. The harm done by the minority religions has been severe, but a new approach is capable of bringing relief. Similar to the case of Jehovah’s Witness, many other minorities need to get religious freedom.

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  1. Gray, J. 1993.  Post-Liberalism: Studies in Political Thought. New York and London: Routledge.
  2. Minersville School District v. Gobitis (1940), the PBS website on Supreme Court History: http://www.pbs.org/wnet/supremecourt/personality/landmark_minersville.html
  3. Nussbaum, M. 2000.  Women and Human Development: the Capabilities Approach. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  4. Nussbaum, M. (2008) “I Pledge Allegiance: Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Crisis over Loyalty,” in Liberty of Conscience: In Defense of America’s Tradition of Religious Equality. New York, NY: Basic Books, 199-214.
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