Under Who?

Who is God anyway? The question occurred to me as I read about the current Superior Court decision in New Jersey that “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance remains constitutional. The American Humanist Association had sued to have the offending prepositional phrase removed, based on first amendment rights to religious freedom. I’ve always found the whole indoctrination of swearing to a flag somewhat provincial and perhaps even damaging to the unity of humankind. Nations, after all, are about keeping things for ourselves, something that the God of the Bible seems to find naughty. During the Cold War, waged against the “godless Communists,” the questionable phrase was added in 1954, only after we’d secured nuclear weapons. Does any nation that has the bomb have the right to declare divine sanction? I guess so, on second thought.

IMG_0962In his decision Judge David Bauman said that God, in this context, is not about religion, but about the state’s history. Granted, one of the New Jersey delegates to sign the constitution was a clergyman, and president of Princeton College. The same Princeton that became the home of the man who would open physics enough to let us begin a nuclear reaction. But I’m getting ahead of my story. This concept of God being an arcane aspect of history as opposed to a present and active force motivating people’s lives is a curious one. In order to keep the deity, he (and the historical God is male) must be demoted to an historical relic. If that is true of divinity, what does it say about the concept of nationhood itself? Have we come to admit that it is all a fiction to keep status quo ante?

Humanist and atheist groups have argued for years that public school (which no government takes that seriously) should not be a forum for religious indoctrination. Some religious groups (such as Creationists) clearly see such schools as a mission field ripe for proselytizing young minds. Such was clearly the case in 1954. Today we see the Russian Orthodox Church becoming a supporter of the government in Russia, where godlessness might be more a factor on the ground than on paper. In the United States we have a culture that provides lip-service to the almighty while the true god is secreted away in the shrines of bank vaults and expense accounts. It is really about a way of life, after all. Should we keep or remove “under God” from a pledge to personal gain? It is all a matter of how you define “God.”

Irrational Reform State

Since 1954, after the cut-off date for new religions (see yesterday’s post), American children have been making a pledge to an inanimate object with the words, “under God.” Despite the fact that all parents know that children take liberties, the reality is that conformity is deeply embedded in young people. Totalitarian states everywhere have recognized that indoctrinated children are difficult to deprogram. In the chilly heart of the great panic known as the Cold War, the pledge of allegiance was emended to declare America a nation under God. And the American Humanist Association is backing a New Jersey family in suing to have a castrated pledge on offer. I always felt swearing fealty to a flag was a decidedly pagan activity anyway. Did not Jesus say, “let your communication be, Yea, yea; Nay, nay: for whatsoever is more than these cometh of evil”? Good Christians aren’t supposed to swear. In a land where the IRS controls what counts as a religion, we might consider substituting “under capitalism.” Isn’t that what we really mean anyway?

Nobody has control over where s/he is born. I’m not sure that many people would want to have the burden of making that decision. Still, we have to learn to adjust. Religion is a matter of where you’re born. We may grow to believe, but what we believe depends on what our guardians teach us. In my case, being born into a Fundamentalist family in Pennsylvania led me to nearly a decade-and-a-half teaching stint in an Episcopal seminary in Wisconsin. Who knew? My religion also taught me that swearing—i.e., “pledging” allegiance—was vaguely suspect. I was never discouraged from the pledge of allegiance, however. After all, it said “under God.”

When my daughter was very young, we were in a store in Wisconsin (where she did not choose to be born) when a couple of guys, being guys, let a few choice adjectives slip. One of them looked over, saw us there (my daughter too young to comprehend what was said), and said, “Oh, sorry! I didn’t see her there.” I found his chivalry admirable, but misplaced. We hear what we hear. So I’ve always found it odd when people want to sue if their children are forced to hear the words, “under God.” How does that threaten an atheist’s home teaching any more than swearing to a piece of cloth undermines a Fundamentalist’s? And aren’t we all taught that globalization is the way of the future? Under those multitude of young hands beat the hearts of Jews, Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Sikhs, Jains, Atheists, and any number of other faiths. We’re told the Cold War is over. Maybe the government should consider turning down the thermostat.


To the Flag

In the great witch hunt that began (or perhaps simply continued) with the Neo-con upsurge in which big business climbed into bed with theological conservatives, the pledge of allegiance became the acid test of true Americans. The Communists were now fading as a threat, and to be patriotic requires a clear and present enemy, so the un-Americans could be found among those who refused to pledge allegiance to a flag. In a recent CNN story, a case is going to court in Massachusetts to remove the words “under God” from the pledge. The dilemma is as simple as it is complex—children who do not believe in God may either recite what they don’t believe, or be ostracized for opting out. (Those of us who make a habit of opting out of things know the feeling well.) The argument goes that children are pledging loyalty to their country, not to a religion. Why should they be forced to say what they don’t believe?

The pledge has an interesting history. The original oath, a celebration of the now much-suspect Columbus Day, was intended as a quick credo of loyalty. No deity of any sort was invoked. Over time, additions started to creep into the pledge (the original version read “I pledge allegiance to my Flag and the Republic for which it stands, one nation indivisible, with liberty and justice for all”). It was not until after the tremendous horrors of World War II, when society was over-reacting to all kinds of threats, real and imaginary, that the words “under God” were added, in 1954. Godless Communists beware! Like the original pledge, this emended pledge celebrated a civil holiday—Flag Day.


Nationalism could well be considered a form of religion. Customs differ in various parts of the world, and highlighting the differences allows for the conferring of unique advantages among the members. True capitalism cannot work in a culture of complete fair play or equality. Nations must be able to declare ownership and control of resources, including those known to every “human resources” officer in the universe as the most troublesome kind. To be useful to a nation, loyalty must be pledged. And children, who don’t have the experience or psychological development to make an informed choice about the Almighty, must say that they believe in “one nation, under God,” where “one nation indivisible” has itself been divided by God. Don’t get me wrong, I am glad to be an American—I can’t imagine being anything else. But I especially like the part about “liberty and justice for all.”

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?

Under G-d

In one of the great showcases of civil religion, the Pledge of Allegiance is again in the news for its brash statement, “under God.” Lawsuits have been introduced in California to try to label the statement as unconstitutional – state supported religion, a declaration that the United States is a theistic country. Even as a child, a religious child, no less, I was vaguely disturbed by the Pledge. I am a sentimentally patriotic American, and I begrudge no one that natural feeling of pride in their heritage. We all come from somewhere, and we like to think the best of ourselves, and therefore our forebears. I’ve tried to trace my ancestry and find that with a sole exception on a great, great-grandparent’s exodus from Germany that my roots are hopelessly lost in long generations of northern European expatriates that have been on these shores for well over a century and a half. Some even more. And yet, to pledge allegiance to a flag? As a student of religion, I understand the value of symbols, but I always felt that a hand over the heart while addressing a banner was a little like idolatry.

Well, I’ve grown up since then. I spent three years abroad, and returned with a renewed appreciation of how much this country has to offer. I’m still a little puzzled by the “under God” bit, however. Sure, America’s founders were generally deists (not Christian by any recognizable stretch of the definition), and since God is assumed, why not add him to the books? But God was only added to the pledge in 1954. In the heat of McCarthyism it seemed important to fly our “anti-communist,” theistic colors high for all to see. And yet, we never define who “God” is.

The God of the Bible has a name. Every semester I find students that have difficulty grasping the idea that “God” is not the name of a deity – it is only a generic title. It could be anybody divine. Shiva, Zeus, or even Baal. In the written work of many of my students from the Jewish tradition, the reverence accorded to the deity’s personal name has been transferred to this innocuous title. In essays and papers I frequently find reference to “G-d,” as if the Torah commands never to make reference to deity at all. So, out of reverence to the same divinity we have some citizens leaving out the lonely vowel of a one-syllable deity while others loudly proclaim that he (never “she”) must be kept in the little bit of civil religion we impress on our public school children. We don’t agree, as a nation, on who “God” is. Reading the rantings of the Religious Right with their tea parties and Conservapedias, I’m sure that this is not the G-d of the Bible. What does it mean to be a nation under a deity we don’t recognize?