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September 15, 2005

‘God’ in the Pledge is not a religious reference

From Concord to Tranquility/Norman Rockwell 1973Yesterday I cheekily compared the controversy over the Pledge of Allegiance to a B horror movie villain that is killed at the end of the movie only to be revived in the sequel. However, as I read Jeff Harrell’s piece I realized that many people of good will may have problems with the phrase specifically because they believe, as the San Francisco judge ruled, that the phrase ‘under God’ represents “a coercive affirmation of the existence of God”, i.e. it is always a religious reference and, thus, cannot be used in any “state” setting.

There are three major points that need addressing:

1. Is the word ‘God’ an absolute religious reference, regardless of context?
2. Must children always be fully cognizant of the reasons and history behind any action that their parents or teachers may require of them?
3. Does tradition or ritual have any role in the greater good of society or the nation?

No, no, and yes. That’s the short stuff, how I arrived at those answers is across the jump.

1. As long time readers know about me, I am pretty adamant about how all things must be considered within context. If I use the word “bitch”, it makes a world of difference if I’m addressing it in anger against a woman or I’m discussing bloodlines with a dog breeder. It is the context in which one finds the word “God” which determines whether it is a religious expression or not.

Now I’m sure I’ll be asked, “But don’t you find it insulting that someone even tries to say the phrase ‘one Nation under God’ is not a religious phrase? Aren’t you then reducing God?” This is a sophist argument by attempting to impose on others one’s own absolutist argument rather than offering one’s own points of debate. Categorically, I reject that “one Nation under God” is a religious phrase in the context of the Pledge of Allegiance. It is as religious as the philosophical argument made by Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence:

“We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.”
Yes, there is an element of religiosity, but the most important declaration is that men cannot usurp the basic rights of man even as they may seize power and suppress their neighbors. Man has rights granted by an authority higher than men. King or pauper, our rights are equally bestowed.

The Pledge is but a reiteration of this basic, founding statement. “One Nation under God” is “One People (e pluribus unum) with rights as endowed by a Creator”. It is not a Pledge to the Government, but a Pledge we make as Americans, one to each other. It is an affirmation of the foundational values of the Republic. The Lord’s Prayer would be ‘coercive affirmation of God’ because one is praying to God. But one does not “pray to God” in the Pledge.

There are those that point out the “youth” of the phase ‘under God’ in the Pledge, as it appeared in 1954 during the Cold War. Usually the last pointed out in a deliberate effort to discredit the Pledge as part of the ‘Red Scare’ 50’s. Such people either choose to ignore the era or never lived through it. The ‘dismissal of the Soviets as a real threat’ historical revisionism is a topic for another time; however, it is true that the phrase WAS a response, but only as I have pointed out – to differentiate between a society in which rights to Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness are Man’s alone, neither granted nor withdrawn by other men vs. a society in which each individual’s existence was affirmed only by the whim or pleasure of other men. Individualism vs. collectivism. Ends vs. means.

2. It is either a blessing or a curse that I have very vivid childhood memories. Not just of places and events but of what I was thinking at the time. As most children, I resented many of the things I had to do that I didn’t understand or didn’t accept the reasoning. Why couldn’t I have more than 2 cookies with my milk after school? Why did I have to do my homework before I went out to play? Under the dark frown that bespoke “I don’t like mom’s answer” was the thought “well, when I have children I’m not going to …”

Funny thing happened, I grew up, had kids, and then realized all the reasons why I needed to do to my kids just as my parents did to me.

As a parent I realized while it is a good thing for me to explain to my kids “why” if they don’t accept my explanation, I am not obligated to convince them. I AM the parent. I see the long-term benefits of certain activities (eating one’s veggies, adhering to a bed time, dressing appropriately for school) that children resist because they live in the ‘now’, not the years from now.

Just look at the American University system and all the fluff courses that came about in the late 60’s when the children started demanding “relevancy” and the adults rolled over. My generation has blurred the differences between child and adult (and in some instances, elevated child over adult) and IMHO, it hasn’t enhanced society at all.

A small child may not fully understand the political philosophy behind the Pledge, any more than the philosophy underpinning the Declaration of Independence. But reciting it, knowing the words by heart, is like a child doing beginning piano lessons. At some point an epiphany occurs and the words, so well known, have meaning, just like practicing the scales trains the fingers to seek out the right notes when a child is ready for more difficult pieces. We don’t sit down a 15 y/o at the piano with a Tchaikovsky concerto and say “you’re now mature enough to understand this music… go for it” and we shouldn’t apply the same approach to household chores or American values.

3. Tradition and/or ritual are activities that bind us emotionally to each other; as couples, families, communities or nations. For instance, take the ritual of “politeness.” Is society better or worse with generally accepted rituals of politeness? Should teachers be addressed by their first names by their students? Should a young person be taught to give up his/her bus seat to a senior citizen or pregnant woman?

We teach (or should teach) our children ritual politeness even if they don’t feel it or understand it because, frankly, it makes society tolerable. Robert Heinlein observed that politeness is the oil that keeps the usually rough gears of society lubricated. Does it make sense to have to seek a reason to be polite to each person and stranger one encounters during the day or should the ritual of politeness be automatic unless there is some evident reason to suspend the politeness?

Why do we have weddings? Family dinners? Why do we have elected officials even take an Oath of Office?

Because the tradition of public affirmation, of shared values, of mutual respect inculcates a feeling of good will and trust among individuals.

This is wrong...how? Oh. Yes. Because of the hypocrisy.


In that matter, the Pledge of Allegiance serves a three-fold purpose. For children, it is a teaching tool, the simplest introduction to the values of an American citizen. Its tradition of standing and recitation is a respect shown to the Nation, aka the People, as surely as giving up one’s bus seat to an elderly person. And it is the simplest form of pubic affirmation of basic American values that one can make at any public gathering where a color guard strikes the flag, reminding us that we are Americans not just because of an accident of birth, but by a voluntary acceptance of the values upon which the Republic was formed.

The Pledge is not about God or the Government. It is about citizenship and respect for ourselves and our fellow Americans.

Posted by Darleen at September 15, 2005 12:37 PM


Of course "under God" is a religious reference. It is a reference to religion in general, and a specific reference to a small number of religions.

Not only is “God” about religion, it is about one particular brand of religion arising from the Levant (the near east). God does not really correctly reference either "the uncreated uncreating" or the "uncreated creating" principles of the east like Vishnu or Brahma in Hindu traditions. It shuts out most pantheons by being singular, shuts out Wicca by being strictly male,... In fact there are only 4 religions I know of where a singular masculine god can be said to apply - Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Zoroastrianism. Would you be willing to pledge (or have your children pledge) allegiance "under all of the gods," or "under the goddess and her consort?" If not, why not? The “under” portion of the phrase also elicits that particular set of religions - like Christianity - that view mankind as having a relationship with god. Many religions view all of creation (and mankind as a part of creation) as a part of “the uncreated uncreating” principle. You don’t have a relationship god, you embody identity with that principle.

(This bit is confusing to Christians and others who follow the Levantine traditions. It goes to the fact that the underlying assumptions of the Levant are, “God created the universe, god created man.” In other traditions, god is the universe, man is a part of the universe, … See the collected works of James Campbell for a solid introduction.)

Look at why that phrase “under God” was added to the pledge. It was added during the 50's McCarthyist crazy time to catch out the "godless communists" and demonstrate that America was not a godless society and so superior to the Soviet Union. It was added specifically to be a reference to religion. The pledge had existed for decades without that phrase. To deny that the phrase references religion is to ignore how it came to be.

You ask if we do things, say these words, just to keep with tradition? So why was it OK to change the tradition/ritual of the pledge then, and now it is bad, bad, bad?

Also the pledge is not a pledge to each other but to "the Republic for which it stands." The republic is a direct reference to the form of government we have. (No it isn't a democracy, it is a democratic republic.) To say it is not a pledge of allegiance to the government is more of stretch than saying "God" is not about religion.

Posted by: Zendo Deb at September 15, 2005 02:24 PM

James Campbell? That should be Joseph Campbell. (Hero with a Thousand Faces, etc.)

Posted by: Zendo Deb at September 15, 2005 03:34 PM

Darleen, I am amazed that you can spend so much time composing an essay on the Pledge of Allegiance without mentioning anything about its original author, the Rev. Francis Bellamy (a Christian Socialist who was dismissed from his Boston Baptist Church for, among other things lecturing about how Jesus was a socialist), or mentioning Bellamy's objectives in the writing of the original Pledge (as part of a National Education Association project to observe the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus's discovery of the New World), or the fact that the "under God" phrase was introduced much later (in the midst of the Cold War, 1954) by politicians who wanted to make a statement about "godless communism." In fact, when the resolution was introduced in the Senate, one Senator, Homer Ferguson had this to say in support of the phrase:

"I believe this modification of the Pledge is important because it highlights one of the real fundamental differences between the free world and the communist world, namely belief in God."

It is in that historical context that your argument, however deeply thought out, falls apart.

By the way, I don't disagree with your last statement about how the Pledge reinforces our idea of citizenship. But if kids were reciting it before 1954 and grew up to become good citizens (my parents, for example), then I don't see how the "under God" phrase alone is necessary.

Posted by: Brad at September 15, 2005 07:42 PM

addendum: re-readng your post I realize I skipped over your sentences in which you acknowledge the Cold War era context: but interestingly, you use that as a justification for the phrase, rather than a reason for removing it (as many atheists and freethinkers have argued). To my mind this is twisted logic: the means of using the Pledge as not only a patriotic reinforcing device but as a religious reinforcing device-- and not just any religion, as Zendo has explained above. Of course, I don't think you have a problem with the religious message in the Pledge because you don't have a problem with that kind of nonspecific monotheistic religious instruction in schools. My theory is proven in section #2 of your post, where you broaden the argument for keeping "under God" under the premise that society began to collapse in the 60's when relativism took over: this, despite the fact that the Pledge was recited by 99% of American school kids during this period.

My point is that these social structures (love of God and country) that you suggest are necessary to keep us together are not enough to prevent the country from taking a wrong turn -- after all, I'm sure many of those white Southerners in the 50's and 60's who recited the Pledge would not have given up their bus seat to a black woman.

Isn't that hypocrisy?

Posted by: Brad at September 15, 2005 08:05 PM

Zendo Deb

Yes the 'God' of the Pledge is the 'God' of the Declaration of Independence. It is not the gods/goddesses of Romans or Buddha or Wicca.

Does that mean the Founding Fathers were being bigoted or hatefilled against other gods?

No. It means that they used their own Judaeo-Christian religious background as THE basis for a philosophy that made man, while a PART of nature, SEPARATE from nature -- Man as partially divine, created BY God, in God's image with inherent rights FROM God not to be usurped by other men.

While other religious traditions may have valuable things to say, they are NOT the historical basis of American values. Why is such an acknowledgement of the role of Judaeo-Christian beliefs in the formation of this country so disturbing?

Brad, the origin of the Pledge is well known and not the purpose of my writing. I wished to examine the phrase 'under God' within the context of the Pledge and how that context has been understood within the last, say 60, years. Where did I say it did NOT have anything to do with differentiating between America and 'godless' communism? Again, it is the belief in God as Creator that allows for unalienable rights. Strip 'God' from the equation and unalienable rights is meaningless. In 'godless' communism, Man's 'rights' don't exist say at the pleasure of men. If men seek to consume other men, who is to judge them wrong? By what standard?

Even the athiest Ayn Rand believed in unalienable rights by assuming Man as a special being by his very 'nature.' That the capacity to reason was, for want of another word, divine and thus man, the individual, is never the means for other men, but an end in himself.

THAT brings us back to the Western 'God' who makes salvation or choice to act morally a CHOICE -- freewill.

I don't think that the Pledge devoid of 'under God' would suffer greatly. My main objection is two-fold, to confront the refusal to consider context and the fullcourt press by some to Bowdlerize American history, public tradition and ritual of any reference to God and the role that religion has played in the formation of American values.

Pick up a grade school history book and see what, if any role, the text authors give to religion in regards to the Abolition movement.

It's as disgusting as the attempt to alter pictures of FDR to remove his famous and ubiquitous cigarette holder.

Posted by: Darleen at September 15, 2005 11:15 PM

I don't believe we should try to remove all references to god from public life.

If your rights come from "God," then government can never take your rights away - they can usurp your rights but not remove them. If rights come from the government, then you have no rights because they can just change their minds about what your rights are. Even the most confirmed atheist would do well to maintain - in the political arena - that rights derive from some source that predates government. "God" in the political arena is that convenient short-hand for that source.

But I stick by my original point... "under God" is a reference to the Levantine god put into the pledge in the 1950's to show that America was better than the godless Soviets. It is a specific reference to a particular set of religions, mostly Christian, and denotes that a particular relationship with god is to preferred.

Posted by: Zendo Deb at September 16, 2005 07:30 AM