America Pans Pledge Lite
by Gary Sloan (e-mail: [September 8th, 2002]

 On June 26, in San Francisco, a three-member panel of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals stunned the nation.  The judges ruled (with one dissent) that reciting the Pledge of Allegiance in public schools is unconstitutional because the component phrase “one nation under God” implicitly endorses religion. 

“In the best-seller A History of God, Karen Armstrong, a former nun, says no enlightened theist believes God is a physical being with a spatiotemporal abode.”

“The recitation that ours is a nation ‘under God’ is not a mere acknowledgement that many Americans believe in a deity,” said the 9th Circuit.  “Nor is it merely descriptive of the undeniable historical significance of religion in the founding of the Republic.  Rather, the phrase ‘one nation under God’ in the context of the Pledge is normative.”  That is, the Pledge prescribes allegiance to monotheism.

The court also noted that the phrase “sends a message to unbelievers that they are outsiders, not full members of the political community, and an accompanying message to adherents that they are insiders, favored members of the political community.”

The dissenting judge, Ferdinand Fernandez, argued the phrase was descriptive rather than normative.  He contended it has scant religious content.  He said such common phrases as “under God” and “In God We Trust” have “no tendency to establish religion in this country,” except in the minds of those who “most fervently would like to drive all tincture of religion out of the public life of our polity.”  He surmised that should “under God” go, patriotic songs like “God Bless America,” “America the Beautiful,” and the third stanza of the Star Spangled Banner would follow. 

Within hours of the ruling, the 9th Circuit had become an object of national opprobrium.  On the street, people shook their heads, a few their fists.  Some christened the 9th Circuit with unholy epithets. 

The airways sizzled with criticism of the ruling.  On call-in radio, listeners explained why “under God” should be retained in the Pledge.  Conservative and super-patriots were out in force.  Here are some typical comments from callers in several states:

“Because it states a historical reality.  America was founded on godly principles.  That’s what made America great.” 

“If you take it out, you start sliding down a slippery slope where finally you can’t even say ‘God’ in public.  First thing you know, we’re like communist China or Nazi Germany.”

 “Back when the Pledge was first written, two hundred years ago, it didn’t need ‘under God.’  Everyone understood that the American way—democracy, liberty, equality, prosperity, the pursuit of happiness—was inseparable from belief in God.  People didn’t have to be reminded of the fact.  For the same reason, the U.S. Constitution contains no reference to God.  It was obvious.”

“To Founding Fathers like Jefferson and Madison, it was self-evident that the American experiment in democracy couldn’t succeed without the guidance of the Almighty.  In the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson specifically invokes the Creator to support the American bid for independence.”

“Ever since prayer was taken out of the schools in the early 60s, America has been in a moral plummet.  Take ‘under God’ out, and you hit the bottom of a cesspool worse than Sodom and Gomorrah.”

“The Pledge of Allegiance doesn’t coerce students to believe in God.  They have the liberty not to say it.  And if they say it, they don’t have to believe it.”

“Once again, you have a small coterie of godless liberal intellectuals arrogantly trying to impose their own secular philosophy on a whole nation.”

“To say that the Pledge excludes unbelievers from the national polity is absurd.  They enjoy the same rights of citizenship that believers have.  At some point, we need to stop talking about the tyranny of the majority and start talking about the tyranny of a miniscule minority.” 

The message was clarion clear:  Americans aren’t buying Pledge of Allegiance lite.  They want the full-bodied satisfaction of “one nation under God.”

The President, the Senate, and the House were in lockstep with the electorate.  When the politicians spoke, they sounded like the callers.  Mr. Bush called the ruling “ridiculous.”   It is “out of step with the traditions of America,” he said, and underscores the “need for common sense judges that understand that our rights are derived from God.”

On the steps outside the Capitol, House members defiantly imbibed, as it were, Pledge regular.  One hundred to 150 members collectively recited the Pledge.   The Senate was in rare accord.  By a vote of 99-0, it panned the ruling.  “Outrageous,” “crazy,” “nuts,” and “stupid”--the critiques were often terse.

Sen. Kit Bond, R-Missouri, invoked the slippery slope:  “Our Founding Fathers must be spinning in their graves.  What’s next?  Will the courts now strip ‘so help me God’ from the pledge taken by new presidents?”  In a prepared statement, House Majority Leader Dick Armey, R-Texas, lambasted the judges:  “The 9th Circuit couldn’t be more wrong on this one.  A judge who believes the Pledge of Allegiance is unconstitutional doesn’t belong on the bench.”   

Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, spelled out the political implications of defending the 9th Circuit ruling:  “This decision is so much out of the mainstream of thinking of Americans and the culture and values that we hold in America, that any Congressman that voted to take it out would be putting his tenure in Congress in jeopardy at the next election.”

Within minutes of the ruling, Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., scurried to rescue God from wayward judges.  She introduced an amendment to the U.S. Constitution to allow references to God on both the Pledge of Allegiance and currency.  “While God is infallible,” she said, “clearly the judges are not.”

The pandemic indignation roused by the ruling portends, one suspects, a speedy demise.  A few days after the ruling, a harassed Alfred Goodwin, the judge who wrote the majority opinion, suspended his own ruling until the entire 9th Circuit court can review the case.

The original Pledge was written in 1892 by Francis Bellamy, a Christian socialist.  It was designed to promote patriotism, not religious faith.  Bellamy wrote it for the Magazine Youth’s Companion in connection with the first national celebration of Columbus Day.  The original wording mentioned neither God nor the United States:  “I pledge allegiance to my flag and the republic for which it stands, one nation indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”

At the behest of President Eisenhower, the phrase “under God” was added in 1954, during the McCarthy era.  In Washington, Eisenhower attended a Presbyterian church pastored by the Rev. George M. Docherty.  In a sermon he delivered while Eisenhower was present, Docherty said if “the United States of America” were removed from the Pledge, it would be indistinguishable from the pledge of many other countries, including the atheistic Soviet Union.  “I could hear little Moscovites,” he said, “repeat a similar pledge to their hammer-and sickle flag with equal solemnity.”  Ducherty wanted “under God” included in the Pledge to point up the difference between a godly America and irreligious nations.

The bill to add “under God” to the Pledge flew through Congress.  Clearly, the purpose of the phrase was to advance religion.  In signing the bill, Eisenhower remarked that henceforth, “Millions of our schoolchildren will daily proclaim in every city and town the dedication of our nation and our people to the Almighty.”  

While scholars and pundits debate the constitutionality of the 9th Circuit ruling, wrangling over legalities, irate critics of the 9th Circuit ruling might mull a paradox.

In its ideal (or pipedream) manifestation, democracy and religion coalesce.  Each is egalitarian.  Each touts the inherent worth of the individual.  Each envisions a society of autonomous beings knit in mutual tolerance, fairness, sacrifice, and empathy despite superficial differences.  The original wording of the Pledge of Allegiance preserves this common ideal of unity:  “one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”  Neither religion nor state is diminished.

            Now insert the contentious phrase: “one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”  

            Suddenly, the specter of division creeps in.  Now the nonreligious, who comprise, according to one poll, 14% of the American electorate, become rebels to the realm.  Now irreligious nations are tacitly stigmatized.  Despite its dulcet air, the intrusive phrase sows dissension.

More matter for mulling:  In the best-seller A History of God, Karen Armstrong, a former nun, says no enlightened theist believes God is a physical being with a spatiotemporal abode.  According to her, the word “God” points to “an ineffable reality that lies beyond normal concepts and categories.”  If Armstrong is right, in what sense, if any, can a nation be accurately said to be “under” God? 

Finally, believers often say God is written in their hearts.  Being an inward, subjective experience, God cannot be legislated out of people’s lives or removed by dictatorial fiat.  So why should millions of believers care whether the Pledge contains the words “under God”?  No one is being deprived of belief or faith.  Should they wish, believers can in most venues--in church, in homes, in cars, in amber fields of grain—recite the Pledge to their heart’s content..    

As she listened to a preacher insistently reiterate the glory of God, Emily Dickinson began to doubt the minister’s veracity.  “The Truth,” she later wrote, “never flaunted a sign.” 

If America is truly under the aegis of God, must the Pledge flaunt our privileged status?

Resources and Avenues for Further Study

  • CNN: Lawmakers Blast Pledge Ruling
  • FOX News: Flap After Court Rules Pledge of Allegiance Unconstitutional
  • ABC News: Pledge of Allegiance ‘Unconstitutional’ and Pledging Religious Allegiance?

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