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The Pledge of Allegiance Goes to Trial

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Many who are arguing for “under God” to remain in the Pledge of Allegiance are doing so by declaring that the phrase has no particular religious meaning for our nation today. This was the view of Solicitor General Theodore Olson when the Pledge issue first came before the Supreme Court in 2004. “Olson argued that the phrase is viewed as an ‘acknowledgment’ of religion’s role in the lives of America’s founders.”[1] It’s not that our nation is actually under the sovereign rule of God but only that people once believed that it was. Olson is not alone in using this line of argument:

Many pledge proponents offer secular justifications to fit Supreme Court rulings. They claim “under God” isn’t any sort of religious exercise or prayer but simply a factual acknowledgment of the nation’s past heritage of faith, for patriotic rather than religious reasons.[2]

Given this line of argument, why not rewrite the Pledge to read, “I pledge allegiance to the Flag of the United States of America, and to the Republic for which it stands, which people used to believe was one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”

History tells a different story. “Under God” was added to the Pledge because Congress wanted to distinguish America from atheistic Communism. The goal wasn’t an acknowledgment that America at one time had been religious. If that’s all it was, then the Soviet Union could have a similar pledge, since at one time Russia was very religious, some would even say Christian. “Under God” was a statement that America at that time, in 1954, was officially theistic.

I Pledge to Whitewash History

Michael Newdow wants every religious reference removed from all official U.S. documents. To be consistent, this would mean a rewrite of the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution, and all 50 state constitutions. If “under God” is removed from the Pledge, new coins would have to be struck and paper currency reprinted so they would no longer carry the motto “In God We Trust.” Francis Scott Key’s “Star Spangled Banner,” our National Anthem, would have to be rewritten because it carries the line, from which our nation’s motto is taken, “In God is our trust.” The Supreme Court opens each session, even the one where the Pledge case will be considered, with a marshal saying, “God save the United States and this honorable court.” This, too, would have to stop.

All government employees should no longer be able to claim December 25th as a paid holiday because it would be an endorsement of the Christian religion. This is the real case I would like to see argued before the Supreme Court. To be consistent, all government employees should have to work on Saturdays, Sundays, and Christmas. Allowing government workers off on these days is an endorsement of the religion. Saturday is a religious day for Jews. Public schools should also be opened on Saturday and Sunday because they are religious days. We don’t want to give the appearance that government is endorsing religion by giving these days off. The reason mail is not delivered on Sunday is because of the Fourth Commandment. (Also see Article 1, section 7 of the Constitution.) It’s obvious by these accommodations that public schools are acknowledging the Christian religion.

Pledging Objections

Newdow and his atheist supporters believe that removing “under God” will make it religiously neutral. Pledging allegiance is a religious act, especially when it’s done in a formal setting like a government school. To take “under God” out of the Pledge implies that the United States of America is God.

The argument is often raised that “under God” was not part of the original Pledge. While these critics don’t necessarily object to the religious nature of the addition, they do object that “under God” is not historical. Originally, the Pledge was known as the “Salute to the Flag.” The name change occurred in 1942 when the original flag salute looked too much like the salute Germans were required to give to Adolf Hitler as they said “Heil, Hitler!” In addition, the original Pledge did not include the words “of the United States of America.” And instead of “I Pledge Allegiance to the flag,” it originally read, “I pledge allegiance to my flag.” If “under God” is going to be questioned because it was added to the original Pledge, then the same must be done with these other additions.

Some people object to “under God” because “they believe it trivializes faith or ‘takes the Lord’s name in vain”[3]—a violation of the third commandment. At first sight, this seems like a legitimate concern. But “God” is not God’s name. Would it be wrong for people to state the following on a daily basis?: “Blessed is the nation whose God is the LORD” (Ps. 33:12a, cf. 144:15b). The Hebrew underlying “LORD” is God’s name. It’s only taking the Lord’s name in vain if we don’t believe what we pledge. Can the Christian faith be trivialized? You bet it can. If this is the concern, then I suggest we spend more time condemning “Jesus Junk” like “Things go better with Christ,” God’s Gym,”[4] “Testamints: The Mints with a Message,”[5] “Godsword: Thirst Quencher,”[6] Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego Brand Hot Sauce T-shirts,[7] VeggieTales,”[8] and “WWJD” lollipops.[9]

Newdow believes that including “under God” in the Pledge is a “slap in the face” to atheists: “When I see the flag and I think of pledging allegiance, it’s like I’m getting slapped in the face every time, bam, you know, ‘this is a nation under God, and your religious belief system is wrong.’” In all the recent articles I’ve read on the subject, this is the argument that is seen as Newdow’s “slam dunk.” This response is typical of those who believe that taking God out of the public square is neutrality rather than atheism. Contrary to popular opinion (propaganda), there is no neutrality. I could argue as Newdow does: “When I see the flag and I think of pledging allegiance, it’s like I’m getting slapped in the face every time, bam, you know, ‘this is not a nation under God, and your anti-religious belief system is wrong.’”

When President Dwight D. Eisenhower (1890–1969) signed the act introducing “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance in 1954, he said, in part:

In this somber setting, this law and its effects today have profound meaning. In this way we are reaffirming the transcendence of religious faith in America’s heritage and future; in this way we shall constantly strengthen those spiritual weapons which forever will be our country’s most powerful resource in peace and war.

Notice how Eisenhower’s words differ from how Ted Olson argued the government’s case. Not only is America’s religious “heritage” in view, but her religious “future” is also emphasized, so that “we shall constantly strengthen those spiritual weapons which forever will be our country’s most powerful resource in peace and war.”

Conclusion

The biggest problem we face as a nation is not whether “under God” is in the Pledge and said in government schools, but the fact that Christians continue to send their children to government schools in the first place. Christian groups are wrangling over “under God” in the Pledge when God is persona non grata in the curriculum. It might not be such a bad thing for the courts to rule that “under God” is unconstitutional. Maybe then Christians will get the message that God does not want parents to send His children to a Godless institution.

Endnotes:

[1] Richard Willing, “High court grills Pledge plaintiff,” USA Today (March 25, 2004), 3A.
[2] Richard N. Ostling, “Pledge ‘under God’ battle makes for unusual alliances,” The Atlanta Journal-Constitution (March 13, 2004), B5.
[3] “Fighting words: ‘Under God,’” USA Today (March 25, 2004), 14A.
[4] A book published by Thomas Nelson and a take off on the famous “Gold’s Gym” chain of fitness centers. There are also “Lord’s Gym” Living Epistles T-shirts.
[5] Velamints
[6] The logo design and colors are made to look like Gatorade.
[7] The image looks like the label on Tabasco Hot Sauce.
[8] See Gary DeMar, “VegiTating?: Try MeatyTales,” Biblical Worldview (November 2002), 3–7.
[9] For an exposé of the “Jesus-Junk” industry, see John B. Murdoch, “Kneel, Santa, Kneel,” Christian Advertising Forum (September/October 1986). Also see Colleen McDannell, Material Christianity: Religion and Popular Culture in America (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1995).

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