The Pledge of Allegiance: One Nation, under Dogma

Jim Amrhein discusses the controversy over the words “Under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance — and destroys the arguments in favor of it being there. 

“The ‘establishment of religion’ clause of the First Amendment means at least this: Neither a state nor the federal government can set up a church. Neither can pass laws which aid one religion, aid all religions, or prefer one religion over another. Neither can force nor influence a person to go to or remain away from church against his will or force him to profess a belief or disbelief in any religion.” (emphasis added by author)

— U.S. Supreme Court, Everson v. Board of Education, 1947

Like it or not, the above excerpt from the decision in the 1947 Everson v. Board of Education Supreme Court case pretty much sums up the whole “under God” debate about the Pledge of Allegiance that’s once again front and center on the public stage. If nothing else, the presence of that two-word phrase unequivocally equates to professing a belief in God. There’s simply no other way to interpret it, is there?

Citing Everson v. Board of Education, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco ruled last month that the recitation in public schools of the Pledge of Allegiance as currently written is unconstitutional, because it contains an endorsement of religion in violation of the constitutional principle of “separation of church and state.” And loathe as I am to side with the U.S. 9th Circuit Court — the most activist (and most overturned, by the way) federal court in the country — I think that the decision handed down last month in that San Francisco court banning the Pledge of Allegiance as unconstitutional because of its Judeo-Christian component is the right one.

Mostly, anyway (I’ll explain what I mean by that in a minute).

But first, in the event you’re not familiar with the case, here are some of the particulars: In 2002, the 9th Circuit ruled on a California atheist’s lawsuit against the state, the federal government, and the local school board on the grounds that the daily recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance in public school classrooms — required by law in the Golden State and others — violated his daughter’s First Amendment rights by forcing her to profess a belief in God. The case before the court last month is nearly the identical case. Same plaintiff, even. However, this time, the man has sued on behalf of a number of other non-Christian children and their parents (turns out he didn’t have proper custody of his daughter at the time of his original suit, which created some procedural roadblocks to the trial’s progression). So basically, same case, same court, same ruling.

If upheld, the ruling would strike down the recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance in public schools in the nine states within the umbrella of the 9th Circuit: Alaska, Arizona, California, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, and Washington.

The Pledge of Allegiance: Indivisible — Except by Beliefs

When the original 2002 ruling declaring the Pledge unconstitutional because of its religious component was handed down, the flap on the Hill was enormous — from both sides of the aisle. In fact, the Senate followed the ruling by throwing together a whirlwind resolution in support of the existing Pledge (it passed on a 99-0 vote) and invoked the Senate counsel to intervene in the case. From what I’ve read, the pressure was so intense the judge who opined in the original case actually suspended his own ruling pending scrutiny from the entire 9th Circuit…

To me, this all begs the question: Why is it so important to so many people that the Pledge of Allegiance contain the phrase “under God?” Very clearly, it’s in conflict with the intent of the framers (oh yes, it is), so what possible reason could there be for it other than to divide people into groups — those that believe in God, and those that don’t — and to not-so-subtly impart a greater degree of patriotism to those that do? In other words: You’re just not American if you don’t credit your country’s formation and continued existence to God. Not to the vision and sacrifice of great men and women over more than 200 years, nor the sweat and toil of immigrants determined to seek a better life, nor the engine of prosperity that free men and women in a free marketplace generate, but to our “most favored nation” status in the eyes of the Alpha Male of all deities…

The answer to the question is this: True to most Christian teachings, the devout in America, through their voices and votes, are simply putting God first and all other things — including the Constitution — second. And although I’m not a historian or constitutional scholar, from where I’m sitting, the litany of reasons defenders of the phrase typically use to justify it seems pretty thin. Here’s what I mean:

1) Kids aren’t required to say it: By law, no public school student can be forced to recite the Pledge of Allegiance (ironic, considering how many teachers are required to do so every morning). However, a 2000 Supreme Court decision declared student-led prayers at school sporting events unconstitutional because it would force non-Christian kids into either falsely proclaiming a faith they don’t embrace or publicly signaling their disbelief. How is reciting the “under God” phrase in the morning Pledge any different in this respect? 

2) “Separation of church and state” isn’t in the Constitution: Not expressly, anyway. But neither is the right to privacy or the right to a fair trial, yet these things have been established by the courts (or by plain old common sense) as principal tenets of the Constitution. You know what’s also missing from the Constitution? The words “God,” “Jesus,” and “Christian.” In fact, the only mentions the Constitution makes of religion at all are in the First Amendment, which forbids Congress from making any law respecting the establishment of any religion or prohibiting religious freedom (which effectively separates church from state), and in another section stipulating that religious beliefs would not be used as qualification for public office.

3) The Declaration of Independence cites God, the Creator, and divine providence: Yes, but only as part of a justification for their separation from a nation in which church and state were fused. That justification hinged on the plausibility of the notion that all men are created equal. In 1770s Britain, this unheard-of notion would have required a divine source to get any traction at all with the king or the Church of England. Jefferson and co. were just trying to use the most persuasive language possible. And by the way, no rights of any kind are guaranteed us by the Declaration of Independence. Legally, it is meaningless.

4) “Under God” isn’t an endorsement of religion, simply a nod to history: Yeah, Cold War history. Even though it was written by a Baptist minister, the original 1892 version of the Pledge did NOT contain any reference to God or religion. The phrase “under God” was added by an act of Congress in 1954 as a response to growing paranoia in which everyone from the president on down lived in fear of being conquered by the godless communists (ironic, since the Pledge’s author was himself a socialist). At around this same time, other acts of Congress added the words “In God We Trust” to our paper money and made this phrase our official slogan, supplanting the more appropriate “E Pluribus Unum.” If American history tells us anything, it’s that before the 1950s, we did a pretty good job of not blurring the lines between God and government. 

5) The Pledge’s reference of God holds negligible religious meaning: If this is true, then one could substitute any deity in place of God in the Pledge of Allegiance without changing its meaning. Tell me, how do you suppose it would feel to say “one nation, under Allah” instead? Would that nation be one you’d want to pledge your allegiance to? Think about it: What if Christians were in the minority in this country and were made to swear allegiance to a lesser god by the millions every day — or expose themselves as both infidels and nonpatriots for not doing so? Sound like America to you?

Beyond all of this, there’s the basic truth that this country was established in no small part because of a desire to escape the pervasive church-states of Great Britain, Germany, and other countries. That’s right: Long before we were a nation of our own, people from all kinds of backgrounds were drawn (or driven) here by conflicts between their personal beliefs and the institutionalized religions of their sovereigns. So what sense does it make to maintain even the suggestion of a church-state in the one country that in large part owes its existence to those who fled this same circumstance in their former homes? 

Of all the radical concepts in our Constitution — and for their time, they were radical in the extreme — religious freedom is perhaps the most fundamentally American. And the framers, though devout Christians one and all, were nevertheless mindful of the need for a clear separation of church and state to ensure this. Politicians, pulpit-pounders, and pundits that argue for ever-increasing ligatures between church and state would do well to remember this. 

The Pledge of Allegiance: Rethinking Church and State: A necessary evil?

On both sides of the aisle, critics of the 9th Circuit’s stance on this issue are asking variations of one basic question: Where will this precedent lead? Will there be a domino effect that will change the face of American culture as we know it (never mind that Cold War-fueled Christian fervor is what really changed our culture)?

Many wonder if patriotic songs like God Bless America, America the Beautiful (on whom God shed his grace) and even The Star-Spangled Banner will be next to fall as unconstitutional because of references to God. But this is an apples-to-oranges argument. To my knowledge, nobody’s forcing public school kids and the government employees who teach them to sing God Bless America every morning on government property. If they were, that would be clearly inconsistent with the separation of church and state. But singing patriotic songs at home or in public, as far as I know, is still voluntary under the Stars and Stripes.

Others wonder if swearing in court to tell the truth “so help me God,” or laying a hand on the Bible when taking an oath of office will fall by the wayside. But maybe it’s time we re-examined these things. Think about it this way: Does swearing before a deity he doesn’t believe in free a defendant from the burden of telling the truth in U.S. courts? It would seem to…

And if the Constitution expressly forbids whether godliness can be used as a qualifying factor for holding public office, what sense does it make to have the newly elected put their hand on a Bible and invoke the aid of God in accepting that office? If they don’t believe in God but take the oath anyway, does that mean they don’t have to govern in accordance with the law of the land or in the best interests of their constituents? Worse yet, if they refuse the oath on religious grounds, what happens? Are they denied the job in violation of the Constitution?

I think that even the posting of the Ten Commandments in courthouses sends the wrong message to defendants and plaintiffs alike: You’re being judged by God’s law, not this republic’s. Some argue that because much of American law is rooted in Judeo-Christian morals and sensibilities, such markers are appropriate symbols of legal history. And in a way, this kind of thinking makes sense. Courts are very godlike in their actions — they sit in judgment of people…

But what if this “symbol” of the legal process wasn’t a carved stone marker in the courthouse lobby, but a giant silver crucifix on the front of the judge’s bench — or around his neck? Where do you draw the line between a reverent nod to history and tradition and an overt endorsement of God’s law over the duly established laws of a republic?

See? All these things add up to a nightmare quagmire of wrongheaded quasipiousness and bloated ceremonialism that blurs the line between God and government — exactly what the framers didn’t want…

As for the “In God We Trust” on our money, I say simply this: Unless it’s in a collection plate, the spending of money does not a statement of faith make. Does anyone really think that every time they drop a little cash they’re furthering the Word? Besides, for those who are bothered by these four words on their currency, there are other options — it doesn’t say anything about God on your MasterCard, does it?

Plus, if ever there were an argument to be made that a link between God and government is one rooted in history, it’s the slogan on our currency. After all, who’s pictured on our money but the founding fathers — all devout Christians? Think of the “In God We Trust” on our cash as a historical quote, something anyone whose mug is on our money would most definitely have said…

After all, to launch and sustain a revolution against the world’s most powerful nation, and then establish a fledgling republic based on the most radical political principles ever inked in one charter, with almost no money, no standing army or navy, no allies, and with thousands of miles of uncharted wilderness around them, you can bet your britches the founding fathers put their trust in God. Where else could they put it?

That having been said, I for one wouldn’t lose any sleep if In God We Trust disappeared from our currency — for the sole reason that I think it takes emphasis away from the truly American slogan it replaced: E Pluribus Unum, meaning “From the many, one” in Latin. This originally referred to the unity of the 13 colonies into one free nation, but has evolved into broader relevance as a reference to one of America’s greatest strengths — our diversity. 

The Pledge of Allegiance: At the Mercy of the Court

Remember how I said above that I think the usually wacky 9th Circuit Court of Appeals mostly made the right decision in this landmark case? What I mean by that is this: They were right to take exception with the religious component in the Pledge of Allegiance, but I believe overreached in their banning of the pledge itself. Why didn’t they just ban the “under God” part added by Congress in 1954 as unconstitutional and leave the rest of the pledge intact?

After all, there’s nothing unconstitutional about laws requiring teachers in public schools to lead children in pledging loyalty to the country that gives them a home, provides them with protection, and ensures their rights. In fact, I think most would agree that it’s wholly appropriate. And not to put too fine a point on it, but in much of the 9th Circuit (namely California and Arizona), I’d be willing to bet that a lot of the kids in public schools are children of recent immigrants — of both the legal and illegal varieties.

If ever there were a place that begs for a daily affirmation of loyalty to our country, it’s near our southern border.  

But the bottom line is this: The Pledge of Allegiance will likely fall in that nine-state zone, at least temporarily. Why? Because whether it’s right or wrong, constitutional or not, few in public office will stand up in favor of removing links between God and government. There just isn’t any upside to it at the ballot box or in fund-raising efforts. They’d rather let the pledge die, I think, than open a debate in Congress about whether the Ike-era changes to the oath and currency are constitutional.

And of course, the knee-jerk reaction of many American Christians (notice I didn’t say the Christian Right — there are plenty of God-fearing Democrats across the fruited plain) will be to resist any change that lowers God’s profile in any way. They’ll likely see it as a holy crusade to preserve things like “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance, the Ten Commandments in courthouses, the swearing of oaths on the Bible, and “In God We Trust” on our money…

And of course, that’s OK. It’s their right as Americans to fight for any agenda they see fit, regardless of whether it’s constitutional or not. That’s the American way. God bless ’em.

But for the rest of us — whether atheist, agnostic, non-Christian, or those few Christian constitutionalists who know where the church/state wall should be — we’re left to put our “faith” in the courts to protect the system we believe in from becoming the very thing it was formed in protest of…

I’m not liking our odds.

Sincerely yours,

Jim Amrhein
Contributing Editor, Whiskey & Gunpowder
October 5, 2005