Mail Room

By The Editors / July / August 2004
June 15th, 2007

Newdow: Right or Wrong?

Michael Newdow ’74 earns my grateful thanks for his fight to keep pure the separation of church and state (“Mr. Newdow Goes To Washington,” May/June). All through my school years I recited the Pledge of Allegiance (a splendid and poetic piece) before the words under God were inserted. It is unbelievable to me now that in those same years we recited the Lord’s Prayer during “morning exercises,” not giving thought to our Jewish classmates or those of other religious persuasions. It seemed to me later that the elimination of the Lord’s Prayer from the morning exercises was a step forward and that the addition of under God to the Pledge of Allegiance was a giant step backward.

I will never understand why so many people insist that children in school be pressured to demonstrate faith in a particular belief system. School should be open to all, to students of all religions, and faith should be a private matter. The teaching of religion and faith is the job of the church, the temple, the synagogue, the mosque, the prayer group, or the family. The school’s job is to teach truth, as we know it, in science, history, language, or math.

Newdow’s fight may help us understand that we are fast becoming a theocracy. His beliefs have nothing to do with this fight. He should not have to prove that his daughter, as the daughter of an atheist, is offended by having to say under God in the Pledge of Allegiance. I am offended that this is required by anyone’s daughter or son, no matter what belief the parents espouse. Newdow is doing a job for us all. As Senator William Fulbright once reminded us: “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.”

Janet Carper ’61 AM

Cornish, Maine


Activists such as Newdow want to prevent a certain viewpoint from being “forced” on society. In reality, Newdow is trying to force his viewpoint on a society that overwhelmingly does have some sort of allegiance to God. Rather than try to change society into their likeness, Newdow and his allies can remain silent while the rest of us are saying those dreaded words during the pledge. Nobody is forcing them to recite them. And don’t drag out the First Amendment as a defense. Any historian or student of constitutional law (who isn’t a revisionist) will tell you that the First Amendment was put in place to protect religion from the government, not to protect the government from religion.

Newdow also arrogantly claims his religion is science and reason, not “mythology.” While he is certainly free to hold any type of religious belief, basing a worldview on science and reason alone is building a house on shifting sand. Science is constantly evolving, so that today’s scientific fact is tomorrow’s discredited theory. I would much rather place my faith in the God who is revealed in Scripture. In my view, the Bible contains eternal truths that are not subject to change. Tradition, reason, and experience can be useful in illuminating Scripture, but are not substitutes for it. Even if there is some mythology in the Bible, they are “sacred myths,” inspired by God to communicate a divine truth, similar to the way Jesus used parables to illustrate a point.

Rev. Tony Beck ’65

Beacon, N.Y.


I read about Michael Newdow with interest and amusement. I find my fellow alumnus smart, contentious, and contemptuous (a worthy product of the 1960s and 1970s?). Chief Justice Rehnquist should have cited the young man for contempt and sent him home for attire appropriate to the dignity of our highest court.

There is one matter with which I disagree with Newdow, however. He is no atheist. Literally the word means no god. By his own admission Newdow has a “god”—science. He “started his own religion,” which by definition is “the service and worship of God or the supernatural.” By God we mean “that upon which we stake our lives.” We all have some such god.

Newdow also admonishes us “to question, be honest, and do what is right.” None of us would question that admonition, perhaps, but I wonder whose standard of “right” he means. Is he referring to the Judeo-Christian ethic, or some ethic of his own?

Rev. Robert A. Tourigney ’41

The Woodlands, Tex.


I have a grudging admiration for Newdow and his crusade to have the word God dropped from the Pledge of Allegiance. As Ernest Hemingway, my college idol, put it nicely in a 1932 letter to his fellow novelist John Dos Passos: “To hell with the church when it becomes a state and the hell with the state when it becomes a church.”

Robert Frenette ’54

Brockton, Mass.


Whom the gods would destroy they first tempt with the illusion of rationality. While dollar bills, public monuments and pledges of allegiance in a secular society should not endorse religion, no better argument exists on the need for religion than to watch the parade of Newdow’s selfish egotism.

As one considers his unrelenting assault on the woman who “raped” him, one wonders what power on earth could possibly constrain this man? Frankly, since he expends his resources on psychic insularity, I pray his next step be to challenge the indignity of place names. In Newdow’s honor Sacramento could be renamed Humility. Newdow is a natural for this cause; the ACLU is too busy with the Patriot Act just now.

Christopher Kox ’81

San Francisco


I was much impressed by Michael Newdow’s passion for the law, as well as his technical competence and reverence for the court system that protects our individual rights against the leviathan of the government. I commend him for exercising those rights and encourage him in his efforts.

But what was the relevance of his claim, rejected by the judge, of his being raped by his wife? Was this, as I suspect, part of an effort that arose from an attempt to disclaim financial or other responsibility for the child?

If so, it demonstrated once again a truth well known in moral philosophy—for every right there is a responsibility. Today’s news in the Washington Post is that he lost his plea because he does not have sufficient custody of his daughter to legally represent her. Most of the justices took this legal path for rejecting his claim rather than address the issues of church and state. So the price of influence in our democracy continues to be responsibility. Thank God.

John Knubel ’61

Potomac, Md.


First you featured Jesselyn Radack ‘92, who got herself in trouble with the law (“The Woman Who Knew Too Much,” March/April). Now comes Michael Newdow. Will the embarrassments for the silent majority of calm, reasonable alumni ever end?

Like Newdow, the congressman for my district, Democrat Jim McDermott, recently generated controversy over the Pledge of Allegiance, in his case by omitting the phrase under God during a public recitation. Even though I am a committed political secularist and think the First Amendment admonition against establishment of a state religion is sound, I find the publicity stunts of both men unfortunate. They continue to perpetuate the framing of the debate in a distorted manner—as one between clear-headed secular, scientific types and Bible-thumping, fundamentalist simpletons. It is a straw-man construct.

The reason I do not have a problem with the words under God in our Pledge of Allegiance is that I do not see God as an old white man sitting in heaven in a flowing robe directing day-to-day traffic. Instead I see God as the sum of all existence and knowledge in the universe.

The Founding Fathers of our Republic had varied spiritual beliefs, but they shared a belief that man was endowed by the Creator with inalienable natural rights that transcended relativistic human constructs. That they expressed this idea in the language of the Judeo-Christian tradition simply reflects their historical and cultural heritage, and does not diminish their idea of a universal God. The Founding Fathers certainly considered terms such as God and Creator entirely consistent with the principles of the documents they framed. When I recite the Pledge, I am affirming that I share these principles as a demonstration of my fealty to the country.

One discerns some common threads in the stories of Radack and Newdow. They both seem to possess an intense—perhaps inflated—sense of intellectual and moral superiority over those around them as well as a preference for dramatic theatrics over sound judgment and reasoned debate. What is truly sad about Newdow’s account is that his child custody case is merely a “distraction” and “stupid family-law stuff” and that, as the mother of the child points out, his daughter is merely “a great vehicle for him to accomplish his other things.” That, more than anything else in the story, provides an insight into the “clear-thinking,” “rational” Newdow.

On a personal note, I was naturalized as an American last year, and was thrilled to be able to recite the full Pledge of Allegiance for the first time.

James J. Na ’95



The U.S. Supreme Court ruled, 5–3, on Flag Day, June 14, that Michael Newdow did not have custody of his daughter and therefore could not speak on her behalf in the courts. Newdow responded in a New York Times Op-Ed: “This decision sets a dangerous precedent that violates the rights of citizens to have the federal judiciary address their claims.… The merits of the case were never addressed.”—Editor


The Future of Campus

One thing missing from the other-wise excellent article “Blocking Out the Future” was any mention of sustainable, or “green,” architecture and design (May/June). It would be interesting to know to what extent the University is taking these principles into account as it goes about expanding, especially considering the vast resources and energy that will be expended.

I would also like to see a discussion of what we might call the “hidden gem” problem: buildings that are so imposing they appear virtually unapproachable. The John Carter Brown Library is a good example: while I was a student, I don’t think I ever saw anyone going in or coming out, and it never occurred to me that I could actually enter it myself and explore the rich collection within. Can we think of ways to open up such edifices, figuratively if not literally?

Fred Baumgarten ’79

Sharon, Conn.


I was much interested in “blocking out the Future,” but it would help us ancients who rarely have an opportunity to visit Providence to have seen a map of the campus as it was sixty years ago, for example, and as it is today, perhaps with the locations of projected buildings noted. I was intrigued to identify Maxcy Hall in the figure on page 35. I lived there as a freshman during 1939-40, when we used to sing “Maxcy Hall is a Hell of a hall BROWN, fit for horses and not for men BROWN!” I wonder what it has been turned into.

W. S. Wooster ’43



Spirit of Hillel

I was disturbed by the letter from Rebecca Witonsky ’97 condemning the Hillel-sponsored lecture by Rabbi Arik Ascherman, the director of Rabbis for Human Rights (“A Bad Choice,” Mail Room, March/April).

Although I disagree with her contention that “by inviting this group to campus, Hillel is undermining Israel’s war against Arab terrorism,” I respect her right to hold whatever beliefs she wishes. But as a leader of Brown’s Jewish community—I was Hillel’s vice president of religious life—I must express my own outrage at her request that Hillel not sponsor “left-wing” speakers.

Hillel has no political agenda. Our programming, which is completely student-driven, includes not only Rabbi Ascherman but also Mort Klein, head of the Zionist Organization of America. Hillel welcomes them equally, advertises them equally, and respects them equally. Our hope is that afterwards, in typical Jewish fashion, we will argue among ourselves over who is right and what Israel ought to do. It is only through exposure to opposing viewpoints and respectful debate that we can learn and find our own values and opinions.

Hillel embraces Jews of all stripes, denominations, and beliefs. We are proud that our community’s pluralism goes beyond tolerance to dialogue and friendship, even across deep ideological divides. We support three groups concerned about Israel: Brown Students for Israel, which is strongly pro-Israel in a traditional sense and oriented toward political advocacy; Friends of Israel, which is primarily a cultural group; and Tikkun, a progressive group that sees itself as supporting Israel by promoting coexistence with the Palestinians. While pursuing their independent agendas, these three groups cosponsor events, share membership, and celebrate Shabbat together. That is the true spirit of Brown Hillel; that is what makes our community so special.

Lev Nelson ’04

Teaneck, N.J.


Blistein’s Epitaph

Selma Moss-Ward’s essay, “Spring Fever,” took me back to Professor Elmer Blistein’s honors Shakespeare seminar, in which I had the pleasure and privilege to participate (Faculty P.O.V., May/June).

As the weather warmed and the breezes wafting in the windows of the English department beckoned us outdoors, the clamor from the class began: “Please, couldn’t we have class on the Green, sir?” No blackboard would be needed, no equipment required for our heated and engaging discussions. After a prolonged pause, Professor Blistein intoned from his customary place at the head of the conference table: “Let it be writ on my tombstone: ‘He never taught a class outdoors.’ ”

And, to my knowledge, he never did.

Celia Hartmann ’78

New York City


Here’s to Jack

The death of Jack Seth ’53, which was noted with a single line in Obituaries (May/June), deserves more attention. Jack and I became friends during the early 1970s, when we both lived in the Boston area. He was very helpful to me at that time, and became not only my lawyer but my friend. I have seldom met any man more sensitive toward others, nor one more gentle. A polio victim, he had difficulty walking all of his adult life, but he seldom referred to his disability. He was more concerned with his allergy to eggs, which allowed him to eat only Brigham’s ice cream.

Jack married late in life, moved to Miami during the 1980s, and was very happy there. Those who new him well will miss his quiet wit and charm.

Bob West ’55

Englewood, Fla.


Here’s to Charlie

I was saddened and surprised to read of the death of my former adviser and mentor Charlie Doebler ’48 (Obituaries, March/April). When I visited him in October, he seemed as sharp as ever and active enough to walk with me to lunch.

With the recent passing of both Dave Zucconi ’55 and Charlie Doebler, the University lost two men who made indelible impressions on scores of Brown students. Dave was instrumental in recruiting many California men who otherwise would have never traveled across the country to Providence, and his devotion to the University and its students has been well documented in the BAM. However, my fondest Brown memories involve my many experiences with Charlie.

I first met Charlie as an aspiring premed student during Freshman Week in September 1967. I vividly recall being summoned to his office in University Hall for my first adviser meeting. He started off the session by reminding me that I wasn’t the most brilliant person to be accepted to Brown and that the chances of my becoming a physician were pretty slim.

I couldn’t believe my ears! I had been accepted through early decision and looked forward to graduating as my father and grandfather had done. As I listened to Charlie go on, I wistfully looked out his window to the still-open Van Wickle Gates and out across grimy Providence. I could still get out of here and make it back to UC Berkeley before their classes started, I thought. Why did I come 3,000 miles and ask my dad to pay the outrageous tuition of $2,000 a year when I could have gone to Berkeley for free?

But I persevered and was eventually accepted into medical school. That freshman year, Charlie and his wife, Marilyn, often invited me and other students to weekend dinners or to his cottage in Little Compton. After he left Brown in 1969, he continued to invite me to the coast and to dinner. I grew to appreciate his acerbic wit and cutting remarks.

Over the past few years, as I have returned to Brown for reunions and alumni-leadership weekends, a visit with Charlie, whether for dinner, lunch, or a cocktail, was always a highlight. He also advised my daughter and helped her choose the college best for her.

The personal attention that Charlie and Dave devoted to students went way beyond the typical administrator-student relationship. They made Brown seem a small and comfortable place, especially for some who, like me, were far away from home. I hope the latest generation of Brown students will have the opportunity to look back on their years at Brown with the same warm and personal memories that I have from knowing Dave Zucconi and Charlie Doebler.

Fred C. David ’71

Santa Rosa, Calif.


Adding It Up

The caption to the photo of professor emeritus Jonathan Lubin is misleading (“Have Chalkboard Will Travel,” The Classes, May/June). The subject of Professor Lubin’s lecture is not calculus, as you imply, but analytic-function theory.

An analytic function has two parts, one real and one imaginary, and he seems to be demonstrating that these satisfy the so-called Cauchy-Riemann equations, one of which appears on the chalkboard in the third line on the right, while the other, not entirely visible, is behind the lecturer.

Paul Nickel ’45

Raleigh, N.C.


More on Radack

as a trial lawyer of more than

fifty years, I am appalled by the reported conduct of Jesselyn Radack ’92 and the BAM’s attempt to justify her outrageous ethical lapses (“The Woman Who Knew Too Much,” March/April).

Radack’s client was the U.S. government. Her ignorance of her fiduciary duty to her client and the sanctity and absolute confidentiality of her communications within the U.S. Department of Justice should be apparent to a first-year law student—let alone to a Phi Beta Kappa and Yale Law School graduate. Thanks to her willful failure to appreciate, and her attempts to justify, the incalculable harm she has done to her client, she well deserves all the harm to herself that her intransigent and self-justifying conduct has set in motion.

Thomas D. Burns ’43



I was rather disappointed in the pundits responding to the story of Jesselyn Radack. For the most part, they claimed to know everything about law but did not even cite the Whistleblower Protection Act (WPA). They should be ashamed of themselves.

The WPA clearly defines types of disclosures, those that occur as part of normal job duties and those communicated to the supervisor and to outside channels. A recent court ruling, Huffman v. Office of Personal Management, held that even a person responsible for investigating crime “who, feeling that the normal chain of command is unresponsive, reports wrongdoing outside of normal channels” has clearly made “a disclosure protected by the Act, and the Act’s core purposes are served by such a disclosure.” I’m not a lawyer, but I wouldn’t sit on my high horse and proclaim I know any answers if I didn’t understand the WPA.

Christine D. Tomei ’87 PhD

Still Pond, Md.


More Inspiration

i’m confused. i recently read the negative review by Michelle Walson ’99 of Lisa Loeb’s television show (“Eat and Run,” Arts & Culture, May/June) and I question what place this has in BAM. While I consider art criticism a rather dubious enterprise to begin with, I’m left wondering how a reviewer’s negative take on an alum’s creative endeavors benefits anyone within the University community. Show business is not easy, and a description of how Lisa successfully navigated the daunting gauntlet of Hollywood to get her own show on the air might have served as an inspiration to the Brown community.

Jason Smith ’87

Valley Village, Calif.



In “Danis by the Numbers” you state that Yann’s career save percentage of .930 is a Brown and ECAC record, “second only to the NCAA record of .939, which was compiled by Cornell’s Ken Dryden” (Sports, May/June). This is puzzling, because Dryden achieved those numbers by playing at Cornell—an ECAC school. Would not .939, then, also be the ECAC record?

Charles F. O’Brien ’68 PhD

Ormond Beach, Fla.


Charles F. O’Brien is correct. In addition, we mistakenly stated in the same article that Yann Danis’s goals-against average of 1.81 last season was a Brown and ECAC record. It is a Brown record only. Cornell’s David LeNeveu had an ECAC goals-against average of 1.20 in the 2002–03 season.

Finally, we misstated that Ken Dryden had won five Stanley Cups during his years with the Montreal Canadiens; the correct number is six. Thanks go to James Roberts, editor of the Cornell Alumni Magazine, for reminding the BAM of the hockey accomplishments of Big Red athletes.—Editor

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