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Public Theology: Not Pledging Allegiance Under God
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Not Pledging Allegiance Under God
Speaking up against the agenda of the religious right.

By Ed Knudson

Conservative radio talk show hosts are loving it. They've been a little quiet since Bill Clinton left office. But now they have something to holler and scream about again: those terrible left-wing judges on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit who decided June 26th that school children should not recite the pledge of allegiance because it contains the phrase "under God".

But it's not only the talk show hosts. Politicians left and right universally condemned the decision. Some called for impeachment of the judges. Newspaper editorials opposed the judges. Everyone said the Supreme Court will overturn the decision. In the post 9/11 patriotic mood of the country there is almost no one who would want to take "under God" out of the pledge of allegiance.

So imagine a pastor standing up this Sunday morning to say something like: "It may not be the worst thing to take the phrase 'under God' out of this country's pledge of allegiance." That would take some courage for most pastors in most church bodies in the United States, especially those traditions which have tended to associate God and country. But there are good reasons to make such a statement.

1. The nearly universal opposition to the court's decision is an indication of the degree to which the religious right has come to dominate the public consciousness of this country. Even the majority leader of the Senate, a Democrat, said of the court decision, "It's nuts." It used to be that there was a healthy debate about these issues. Now there is no debate, everyone is afraid to anger the religious right and its definitions of what is proper in relation to God.

The fact is that the teaching of the religious right about God and country is only one view within Christianity and one which has been and continues to be contested in the primary traditions of most Christian denominations. It is the religious right which has promoted prayer in schools and the use of Christian symbols explicitly in the public context. This is because of its teaching that the United States is a "Christian country." Again on the Fox News Network last night Southern Baptist Jerry Falwell said that the court opinion was completely wrong because this is, indeed, a Christian country. A pastor of an Assembly of God church is quoted in my local paper saying: "America apparently no longer is a Christian nation. It is a tragedy."

It is true that religious television programming has been dominated by Southern Baptist and Assembly of God representatives. In fact, it can be suggested that such programming has been successful partly because these church groups have been willing to present such a simplistic view of religious patriotism, and that raises the question whether such high faith in the country is even Christian in the first place. But now their view of God and country has become so powerful in the public context that it seems to enjoy nearly universal affirmation. It is time for pastors and leaders of other denominations to ground themselves in their own traditions so they can challenge this view of God and country.

2. The debate over the pledge of allegiance at this time takes the focus away from what's really important these days. The real news of the day has to do with corporate financial accountability, globalization and the war on terror, the continuing disaster of governance in Africa, and so on.

In fact, this has been happening for some time. The religious right has been able to focus public discussion on its agenda and the media has gone along with it, and not only the conservative radio talk show hosts. The religious right, which became a political force because Ronald Reagan and the Republican Party promised them they would implement their agenda, has been betrayed by conservative leaders and has never gotten its programs passed in any substantial way. But they have been able to dominate the major public media who love juicy stories about sex and religion.

This means that the media has been able to get everyone talking about the Clinton sex scandals and prayer in schools while corporations in this country have been able to do whatever they want, no one is watching them. In this way the religious right has been an exremely disabling force within the political processes of this country; the religious right is bad for the country, bad for democracy, bad for true witness to the Christian faith. Leaders of the religious right have allowed themselves to be used and abused by Republican conservatives. And rank and file members of the Republican Party should become aware that they have enjoyed electoral success partially only because their leaders have catered to the religious right, often in quite explicitly cynical ways.

And media producers and writers should be ashamed of themselves for giving such publicity to narrow perspectives of the religious conservatives as if they are the only ones able to define what it means to be "Christian" in today's context. The media has been systematically unfair to the other voices within Christianity. It is time for these other voices to be heard, not only in church but in the public context as well. The fact is that according to the primary traditions of Christian faith it would be well to remove those words "under God" from the pledge of allegiance.

3. This phrase, "under God", does not have a long history of usage. It was added to the pledge only in 1954 when Dwight Eisenhower was the president. Remember he was a general in the second world war. The 1950's was a time to celebrate the victory of this country and the Cold War with the Soviet Union was beginning. It was only in 1955 that the words "In God We Trust" were added to all the coins and currency in the country. This was a time of euphoria but it went a bit too far. By voting to insert the words "under God" into the pledge of allegiance the Congress sought divine favor for this country over-against atheistic Communism and to influence school children forevermore. In the language of the measure's sponsor, Representative Louis C. Rabaut, these words will help insure that "the children of our land, in the daily recitation of the pledge in school, will be daily impressed with a true understanding of our way of life and its origins." When Eisenhower signed the legislation he said: "Millions of our schoolchildren will daily proclaim in every city and town, every village and rural schoolhouse, the dedication of our nation and our people to the Almighty."

In other words, "under God" means that this country comes from God and all its people are dedicated to God, and this God is understood as "the Almighty." In a time of enthusiasm it is understandable that the people and leaders of this country felt favored by God but the language does, indeed, go too far. For Christians, these words claim more for this or any country than can be truthfully and faithfully confessed, or pledged.

We should remember what we were fighting about in World War II. We were fighting a German leader who had his own understanding of God and tried to use the Christian church to further NAZI goals. Adolph Hitler was a God and country kind of guy. This is not a happy time for the witness of Christians to the true faith of the church of Jesus Christ; only a few stood up against Hitler, including Dietrich Bonhoeffer who then was killed just before the end of the war. And it should alert all Christians to the dangers of associating God with any particular country.

4. We now live in a different time; it has been nearly fifty years since the words "under God" were added to the pledge. Not everything this country has done around the world since then has been laudable. God was not on our side in Vietnam; at least we did not "win" that war. We along with the Soviet Union held the world in terror from the threat of nuclear bombs, but now atheistic Communism is no more. Our corporations engaged in commerce with other nations in ways not always helpful to those less powerful than ourselves.

And now in our time this country has become the single "superpower" of the world. It ought to make Christians just a bit concerned to have this superpower make a claim for itself greater than is warranted in a world grown smaller through technical advances in communications and transportation.

And it is Christians living within this superpower who now especially are faced with the challenge of witnessing to the truth of the gospel of Jesus Christ. We should not be just carried away with the excesses of nationalist fervor. We should ask whether it is true that we can pledge that this nation is or really intends to be a nation "under God", whether it ever was, and whether we even want it to consider itself as such. It is quite a different thing to pray to God on behalf of our nation, or to follow the laws of the nation, than to believe that God favors our nation over others.

Christians, on the basis of their own faith and commitment, should not say those words "under God" when or if they say the pledge of allegience. And they should work to have these words removed from the pledge in so far as these words are meant to point to the God worshipped in Christian churches. Christians pray and worship in that alternative public space called "church". We do not need the words of our faith inserted in government documents or public ceremonies under the direction of secular authorities.

5. However, for some people these words "under God" have little or no meaning and so, they argue, it is all right to keep the phrase in the pledge. This has been the argument of many who think of themselves as "liberals". The word "God" can mean anything anyone wants it to mean and therefore it commits one to nothing.

The late justice William Brennan called the use of such phrases as "under God" in the pledge "ceremonial deism" by which he meant references to the divine which are said so often as to lack any specific religious meaning. But deism is not a word without meaning; it refers to the religious view that God is the force which began the world but no longer is involved with it. Most of the founding fathers of this nation were deists. It is a view related to the philosophy known as "the Enlightment" which provided the substantive background for the founding documents of the country.

In-so-far-as the word "God" means the deist, rational, uninvolved God, Christians, of course, can not make a pledge which includes any such view of God. And Christians should completely reject the argument that "under God" should remain in the pledge or on our coins because the word God has little or no meaning, or can mean whatever a person wants it to mean. That is a most cynical argument. It is precisely because Christians know what the word God means for themselves that they should reject this cynical view.

We need to remember that early Christians were persecuted and killed precisely because the Roman empire wanted them to bow down and worship images associating Rome and the Roman emporer as God. The resurrection of Jesus Christ from the Roman cross meant that the power of Rome was not the final power of the world; that there was a greater Power worshipped in the church. For Christians the word God has very definite meaning.

6. This means that church should always be very, very careful about allowing anything outside itself to define the substance of its own faith. The state is not the church. The government of the United States is not the church. The church itself is the custodian of the words and symbols of the church. And, especially, Christians should reject any effort of the state to define the meaning of its words and symbols.

Christians who are political leaders will do well to consider the perspective of Republican President Theodore Roosevelt who opposed the use of the phrase "In God We Trust" on coins. He felt that it was blasphemous for such a motto to appear on mere coins. God is more than a motto. God is more than words on coins. God is more than words in any one nation's pledge. Theodore Roosevelt's high understanding of God is precisely what led him to reject efforts in the government to define such matters. It is the church's job to define who God is, not the state's.

To understand the importance of this in our day it is necessary to have a rather long view of the history of church-state relations. Christianity became the state religion of the Roman Empire through the Emporer Constantine in the fourth century. During the period called the middle ages there were two primary institutional powers, the church and the state. After the Reformation in the 16th century great European wars were waged among states promoting different versions of Christianity. Revolutions in France and England and the war of independence in the United States installed constitutional democracies in those countries which explicitly separates church and state institutionally and began what is generally called the "modern" period, during which the institutional power of the church has very substantially declined since the middle ages.

One way to understand the religious right in this country is that it wants to return to the middle ages when the power of the church in society was very substantial. It wants prayer in public schools, it wants to use the power of the state to coerce everyone to follow its moral rules, it views this country as God's chosen nation in relation to the rest of the world and promotes that understanding through preposterous readings and mathematical calculations of the book of Revelation in the bible. The religious right claims to be bible believing, but it moves far beyond the bible. It now seeks control of the institutions of government in this country, including public schools and local governments.

These are not mainstream views; they are the views of a radical religious right wing in this country and they should be rejected by the larger church. One way to make such opposition known is to challenge the importance of the words "under God" in the pledge of allegiance.

7. Those who most seriously advocate the use of "under God" in the pledge exhibit a complete lack of tolerance for views other than their own and a lack of respect for those who may suffer because of their views. The screaming of the talk show host against those terrible atheists is one visible sign of this self-righteous intolerance. The use of the word "God" to support such extreme self-righteousness and hostility against others should be opposed by those who know the real substance of Christian faith revealed in Jesus Christ who refused the use of political power on his behalf and died on a cross for sinners and the outcast, those most rejected by the powers of his time.

The fact is that the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals was responding to a specific case brought to them by a specific father who was concerned about his daughter's experience in a specific public school. The court had to say something. It's reading of the rulings of the Supreme Court in similar cases led it to its decision. The reasoning of the court is available at its website or in this archived copy. Such careful reasoning is important in a society based on law which should result in justice for all.

The most important parts of the pledge for the society is not the phrase "under God" but the phrase "justice and liberty for all." The hysterical nationalistic response to the court's decision demonstrates lack of real commitment to the notion of justice and liberty for all. Political leaders should be elected on how their ideas will lead to more justice and liberty for all, not on general religious symbols. But the Republican Party has in the past and will now again try to further the hysteria, to fan the flames of indignation over the court's decision in order to win elections, giving the religious right a symbolic victory while implementing policies which may well not be based on the idea of justice and fairness for all, even for those folks within the constituencies of the religious right. George Bush the first did exactly that in his presidential campaign against Michael Dukakis in 1988. Now George Bush the second has an opportunity to fan the flames of nationalistic hysteria in upcoming elections. And talk show host Rush Limbaugh says: "This isn't going to stand. It's asinine. This is great. This is going to elect Republicans all over the country."

And this is precisely the sort of thing that went on in Hitler's Germany, an appeal to mass hysteria. The killing of Jews was justified by appeal to racial purity in the name of a folk God. Many otherwise thoughtful and caring people, including pastors and theologians, did not speak out because they thought in the long run that Hitler would be good for the country. Mass hysteria was more important than any careful reasoning about how social life might be structured under fair laws for all.

The influence and organization of the religious right seems to have faded some in the last couple of years so some may believe there is no danger that the United States would repeat the terrible mistakes of a Nazi Germany. However, the response to the court decision indicates the degree to which the views of the radical right continue to dominate public consciousness. The sight of Congressional leaders swarming onto the capitol steps to recite the pledge as an act of defiance against a "liberal" court was sad, indeed. It indicates that no one in Congress is allowed to even discuss the matter anymore. The view of the religious right towards the classically liberal institutions of this country now prevails.

So, there are good reasons to support the idea of taking the words "under God" out of the pledge of allegiance. Then any citizen of the country or any student in public school would be able to say the pledge without being confronted with the confusion of what this word "God" actually means. I myself do not say the words "under God" when I say the pledge, but it makes me feel as if I am not a full member of the community, whereas I want to make as full and helpful contribution to public life as I am able. The God I worship is the source of life for not only this country, but for all countries and, indeed, the entire universe. God cares for each and every part of the world and each and every person, whether or not particular persons know or confess faith in God's existence or qualify in any other way. This God does not require the power of government to promulgate God's will, that is the work of the church. Because of this faith I believe it important in our time and place now to remove the words "under God" from the documents and ceremonies of this particular nation.

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Date Added: 6/27/2002 Date Revised: 6/28/2002

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