Under God

As one of the more flamboyant of national holidays in the United States nears, there is a whiff of discontent in the air. The North Carolina Secular Association has been sponsoring billboards that provocatively read, “One Nation Indivisible.” Those who, since 1954, have grown accustomed to reciting the “pledge of allegiance” with the words “under God” inserted after the “one nation” bit, grumble that one more icon of civil religion has come under fire. I first became aware of civil religion as a student in a self-identified Evangelical Christian college. I was astonished that the religion faculty, all believers, suggested that civil religion was not true religion at all. True religion was an inner commitment, not social bravado – often in the service of political aims. I was pointed to the writings of Richard Niebuhr and Dietrich Bonhoeffer and told to think for myself.

Since that time, I have kept a wary eye on civil religion. It is a dangerous force in society since few people think deeply or seriously about their religion. It fosters knee-jerk mob mentality. Civil religion is a slurry of a variety of religious outlooks, mostly Christian, predominantly Protestant, but now gaining a dose of conservative Catholicism. No one denomination would accept all its tenets as true faith, but weighed against the “godless alternatives” most conservative believers would much prefer the shallow public display of religiosity to “one nation indivisible.”

The Pledge of Allegiance was first composed in 1892. It read, “I pledge allegiance to my flag and the republic for which it stands: one nation indivisible with liberty and justice for all.” (That flag didn’t have 50 stars.) The North Carolina Secular Association has, arguably, simply reverted to the original formulation. In 1954, with Cold War concerns heating up and decent Americans associating themselves with Evangelical Protestant values, the phrase “under God” was added – take that you godless Communists! That other great icon of civil religion, the United States motto, “In God we trust,” was placed on currency during the battle-torn era of the Civil War. Once again, the Cold War brought it into prominence. In 1956 the Congressional Record noted that “In God we trust” should be designated as the United States motto. With the collapse of many of the Cold War threats, the fully charged civil religion front had to find a new outlet for its excessive energy. One needs only a casual glance at the American political scene to see where this insipid, lukewarm version of civil religion has resurfaced. One nation indivisible?

Does it really stand for freedom of religion?