Donate to IMPACT
Click below for info
One Nation, Indivisible
Subscribe to IMPACT
Where to Find
Buy IMPACT T-Shirts
Ordering Back Issues
by Morris Sullivan
One day toward the end of June, one of my editors called me. I was on my way to see the mayor of a small community nearby; his town is on my beat, and I was to interview him about a July Fourth event. The editor wanted to know, "Does the city's commission say the Pledge of Allegiance before their meetings?" It seems a huge, national story had just hit: the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals had just decided that the Pledge, with its "one nation, under God" language, violated the establishment clause of the First Amendment.
The paper was looking for a local angle on the story, and I told the editor that the little community does, indeed, say the pledge.
When I got to the mayor's house, I told him about the editor's question. This particular mayor is pretty levelheaded, as politicians go. I won't name him, because I didn't yet know I'd be writing this, and want to honor his "off the record" status.
I wondered if he'd thought, yet, about what the commission might do differently, if they had to. "I guess we'll keep doing what we've been doing," he said. "Until we have some reason to do differently." However, he mentioned, he had already wondered about it. For example, the day before, a committee had planned the opening ceremony for its July Fourth festival, complete with the Pledge.
The irony of that was not lost on him. "Well," I said, "you could always just revert to the original version, and say 'one nation, indivisible.' It's better poetry, anyway."
That phrase, "one nation, indivisible," came to mind over and over as the flames of controversy raged. Government leaders universally ruled out any possibility that perhaps the judges had the best interests of some Americans at heart. Congress protested by loudly reciting the Pledge. For the most part, television news ignored any rational discussion of the event in favor of fanning the flames of patriotism. Most amazing, perhaps, was the president's response: In a remarkable display of pecker-waving, Bush all but promised to hang the judges who made the decision.
Within days, the media reported a huge "victory": the judges had offered to "hold off" on making their decision official. Washington, of course, puffed its little chest out and did a victory dance. However, said First Amendment lawyer Steven G. Mason, the court's move was mainly a public relations gesture. The ruling was nothing like the crisis it was made out to be.
"The media don't understand the procedure," he said. "This man filed a lawsuit to declare 'under God' unconstitutional," based on the establishment clause in the First Amendment. The establishment clause reads, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion," and by extension, "Congress may not establish a religion," either.
This is the clause the court used to determine that "under God" was unconstitutional; it does tend to protect the non-religious, because it says government can't establish or promote a particular religion, or religion in general.
However, in his suit, Mason explained, the plaintiff lost. "So he appealed to the circuit court, who published their opinion. Whenever the court enters an opinion it's not final for some period," he explained, until after the losing side has a chance to come back. The give-and-take can last months, if not years, before such a decision has any practical effect.
Mason is a Florida attorney who specializes in civil rights cases. One would have to look hard to find a more vociferous, more tenacious defender of the First Amendment. However, when I asked his opinion of the controversy, his answer surprised me.
"The judges were extremely well-intentioned," Mason said. "But I think it was a bad decision. It misses the boat from a practical standpoint; it's an ivory tower decision that has no ground in reality."
"We all know religion has political aspects," Mason said. "But 'In God We Trust' and the Pledge of Allegiance are used in a less political, more ceremonial sense." Courts have ruled in the past, he explained, that such phrases are not used in an establishment sense.
"We were founded as a religious society, because a large contingent of our founding fathers were proponents of religion," he added. "We're never going to eliminate that from our society."
Mason is probably right about that. While there was no small amount of controversy over the inclusion of religious verbiage in founding documents like the Declaration of Independence, in the end, those more freethinking founders acquiesced to the religious majority.
In the case of the pledge, however, "God" was added after the fact. In 1892, when Francis Bellamy, a Baptist minister and Christian socialist, wrote the pledge, the nation was only then one generation removed from the Civil War, which had threatened to physically divide the country. "One nation, indivisible" was a powerfully important phrase.
Not until 1954 was the phrase "under God" added, against the protests of Bellamy's granddaughter, who insisted he would have resented the change. One rationalization for the 1954 revision, however, was that America was again in danger of division. At the time, Americans lived with the fear that communism would overcome our liberties, either from Soviet aggression or from within our own borders. America's pledge needed to be "different from a communist country's," thus God was inserted into it.
Today, the possibility of civil war is absurdly remote. Thankfully, the anti-communist mentality is virtually meaningless. While these threats have faded, our nation has become infinitely more diverse than it was during Eisenhower's day. It is likely the reaction against the judicial threat against "under God" comes more from a fear of that diversity than from a love of God or of patriotic traditions.
It is also, unfortunately, a handy way for an elected official to gain public support during a time when Americans are more patriotic, and more fearful of threats from outside the nation, than at any time since World War II.
Over the long run, however, it is imperative that our leaders become more inclusive, not less so. That means recognizing the rights and beliefs of all their constituents.
"I am a sect to myself, as far as I know," said Thomas Jefferson. In that tradition, I will say little about my own religious beliefs. I would not expect my own belief system to be welcomed at any meeting of any mainstream religion or, for that matter, any new-age one. However, I'm not, strictly speaking, an atheist.
But for several reasons, I find that civic version of "God" --the God of Boy Scout troops, Chambers of Commerce, and school assemblies--to be mildly offensive. Like Mason, I think the phrase is a small thing. However, in such civic trappings, that vague, undefined word, "God," is either: (a) the Judeo-Christian one; or (b) meaningless babble.
Either way, I don't like it. If it's the Judeo-Christian "God," then to say "under God" is to exclude a hell of a lot of Americans. It excludes not only atheists, but Buddhists, who are non-theistic. It excludes a growing number of neo-pagans who prefer to worship a goddess; it excludes those whose god is called by any number of Hindu names, excludes those who call god "Allah" --the list goes on and on.
Despite our government's insistence that, when it comes to religious beliefs, it is all-inclusive and all-accepting, a phrase like "one nation, under God" essentially judges all those who do not believe in a Judeo-Christian God to be less than good Americans.
The majority of Americans are believers, and it would take some very strong leadership to change our deistic national paradigm. Someone or some group would have to have guts enough to say in public, "We don't think you have to believe in God in order to be good Americans."
To have good values and ethics, to cherish equality, liberty and justice: those are the traits that make us good Americans, and they have nothing to do with a belief in God. Therefore, demanding that Americans believe in God is both unnecessary and anti-American, because it excludes many good Americans.
Of course, those who defend the phrase will say "God" doesn't refer to any particular God. In fact, the decision, if it goes anywhere at all, will likely be overturned on the basis, as Mason explained it, "As a practicality, at worst the phrase 'under god' is a minimal intrusion on the First Amendment. It has no impact on government's establishment of religion, and it doesn't coerce anyone into any government-sponsored religious viewpoint."
In other words, "God' can mean a lot of things, and does not necessarily mean any particular thing. That argument reminds me a little of an interview I once did with an AA person, in which I suggested atheists might have trouble with all the God stuff in the 12-step program. He gave me a standard AA answer, which was that "God" could be anything. "It could even be that doorknob over there, as long as it helps you stay sober."
Thus "God" becomes meaningless babble. If "that doorknob over there" can be called God, then God, by definition, is simply a figment of the human imagination.
President Dwight David Eisenhower, when he praised the addition of the phrase, clearly intended it to refer to the Judeo-Christian version, not a doorknob. Every morning, he said, millions of schoolchildren would now "proclaim in every city and town, every village and rural schoolhouse, the dedication of our nation and our people to the Almighty."
"If you're going to do an establishment argument, do it when the government's trying to shove religion down someone's throat," Mason told me. It's too bad he wasn't practicing law in 1954, when Eisenhower and Congress agreed with the Knights of Columbus to shove "the almighty" down our throats.
Morris Sullivan is a freelance journalist living in DeLand, Florida.
Email your feedback on this article to email@example.com.
Other articles by Morris Sullivan:
Notes from the Cultural Wasteland Columns