One Nation Under God

A government, almost by definition, cannot help but endorse religion; a religion, at least, that is defined broadly enough. Religion is an explanatory world view or perspective on meaning based on essentially improvable axioms. Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, and even atheists arrive at their positions based on faith. Political systems, too, have their faith components and the two are subtly related and even interdependent.

The United States is a particularly instructive example since its establishment was not the result of the gradual accretion of tribal groups, but rather of a self-conscious political decision on the nature of man. The beliefs behind the decision to institute a new country are explicitly embodied in the Declaration of Independence. The document asserts on faith “…these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” This assertion by the Founders was undoubtedly informed by their experience. These truths were so obvious to them that they believed them “to be self-evident.” It was certainly the product of an emerging political philosophy, but the Declaration was also a statement of faith about the nature of man. In a very fundamental sense, the Declaration of Independence is a religious document underpinned by those articles of faith. For a government to pass on its political beliefs to children and to nurture the acknowledgment of these articles of political faith are, in a broad sense, religious enterprises.

Indeed, the Founding Fathers explicitly asserted that the acceptance of the notion that God grants rights was essential to the long-term stability of the country. Thomas Jefferson asked rhetorically “can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are of the gift of God? That they are not to be violated but with His wrath?”

Moreover, the Founders believed that those governments that did not honor the inherent rights of man would ultimately suffer and that there was a Providence that was calling Americans to a higher moral and political duty. In 1776, George Washington wrote in his general orders, “the peace and safety of the Country now depends, under God, solely on the success of our arms.”

Abraham Lincoln at Gettysburg, consciously believing that the carnage of the Civil War was perhaps retribution for the sin of slavery, vowed that “this nation under God shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth.”

What then do we make of the First Amendment’s proscription that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…” as it applies to the recent case taken up by the Supreme Court to determine the whether students reciting the words “under God” as part of the Pledge of Allegiance violates the Constitution?

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals recently ruled in the favor of a father seeking to protect his daughter from the words “under God” as recited as part of the Pledge. It has long been recognized that people cannot be compelled to recite the Pledge. Parents can arrange to have their children opt out of the Pledge. However, this father is a devout atheist and demands further protection. He does not want his daughter to be embarrassed by being singled out for not reciting the Pledge. Now there is a question as to whether the father has standing to sue. The custodial mother and daughter have no objection to reciting the pledge and indeed are far more embarrassed by the father’s legal jihad, but let us leave that aside for a moment. Does asking students to recite the phrase “under God” as part of the Pledge violate the establishment clause?

The Supreme Court has long held that ceremonial evocation of “God” does not rise to the level of “establishment.” Is that the case we would wish to make here? Do we wish to argue that the words “under God” constitute just a throw away phrase used for rhetorical flourish but not having a real significance? If that is what we think, then why are we upset at the possibility that “under God” might be stripped from the Pledge?

At that time the First Amendment was written the Founders were trying to prohibit the national government from “establishing” a religion in the conventional sense of supporting churches and clergy. They wanted to prohibit Congress from declaring an official religion and supporting associated institutions financially and with other special privileges. Since then, the incorporation doctrine has extended this constraint to state governments as well. However, the original understanding of the clause did not include denuding the public square or even public discourse of religion. Indeed, does not the deliberate exclusion of religion from the public square constitute an endorsement of a non-theistic view of the world?

The thesis here is that governments have a right and obligation to teach and instill those principles necessary for its propagation. This is particularly true of governments based upon the inherent dignity of man, even if some find that dignity in a belief in God while others may find a different, less sacred, route to that conclusion. These precepts are part of a larger concept of religion that governments can not help but endorse. The phrase “under God” in the context of the Pledge means that our rights are not simply a convenient convention but a bedrock tenet of our collective faith. The phrase “under God” represents a conviction that we are called upon to meet our civic obligations.

Yes, the phrase “under God” is an endorsement of a religion, a civic religion whose precepts overlap what we generally consider religious faith. But it is the conventional, more all encompassing religion and religious institutions, the Founders did not wish us to formally establish. The pledge with the phrase “under God” is no more unconstitutional than the Declaration of Independence or the Gettysburg Address.

For an excellent discussion of the legal and ethical issues involved, much of which informed this article, the reader is directed to “Under God: The History of a Phrase,” James Pierson, The Weekly Standard, pages 19-23, October 27, 2003.

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