One Nation, Over God

Series: Window on the World

by Phil Ryken September 1, 2002

It's time to reopen the window. This is the Window on the World, and from now until June I'll be looking at our world from the biblical point of view almost every Sunday evening.

Usually I begin the fall by looking back at something that happened over the summer, and this year is no exception. On June 26 the United States Pledge of Allegiance was declared unconstitutional. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the phrase “under God” violated the First Amendment. In the opinion of the court, the mention of God amounted to a government endorsement of religion and thus violated the widely held principle of the separation of church and state. To quote from Circuit Judge Alfred T. Goodwin, saying “one nation, under God” is as objectionable as saying “we are one nation ‘under Jesus,’ a nation ‘under Vishnu,’ a nation ‘under Zeus,’ or a nation ‘under no god,’ because none of these professions can be neutral with respect to religion.”

Probably the best thing that can be said about the court decision is that at least it took religion seriously. The judges recognized that to say “under God” is to acknowledge God's authority over our nation's government. Originally this was not part of the Pledge at all, but it was added in 1954 when there was pressure to save America from the godlessness of global communism. As President Eisenhower declared then, “Millions of our schoolchildren will daily proclaim in every city and town, every village and rural schoolhouse, the dedication of our nation and our people to the Almighty.”

Whenever the Pledge of Allegiance is recited in our public schools, participation is strictly voluntary. Nevertheless, the court reasoned that the pledge is guilty of “conveying a message of state endorsement of a religious belief.” It must be said that this represents a complete misunderstanding of the original purpose of the United States Constitution. What the Constitution says is, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.” This clause was never intended to exclude religion from public life, but only to prevent any single religious denomination from becoming America's state religion. To establish, in the proper sense of the word, is “to make a church a national institution” (Webster's Dictionary). It should be obvious to any thinking person that having schoolchildren say “one nation, under God” does not establish a national church at all.

Our Founding Fathers clearly believed that it was appropriate for Americans to talk about God in public life. This is why God is mentioned four times in the Declaration of Independence, why Congress begins every day with prayer, and why our federal currency bears the motto “In God We Trust.” It is also why the Supreme Court opens its sessions by saying, “God save the United States and this honorable court.” These and other references to God hardly represent the kind of religious establishment that our nation's first leaders were concerned to prevent.

Fortunately, there was a huge public outcry as soon as the Ninth Circuit Court announced its decision. President Bush said the ruling was “ridiculous.” Senate leaders called it “stupid” and quickly passed a unanimous resolution supporting the pledge. The court agreed to reconsider, and now it seems unlikely that the Pledge of Allegiance will be thrown out after all. But stay tuned, because the atheist who first raised the issue has now filed a lawsuit against having congressional chaplains.

There still remains the question as to why the Ninth Circuit was so adamantly opposed to letting school children say “one nation, under God.” The most plausible explanation is that, like many people, the judges do not want to acknowledge God's sovereignty over our country. This is typical of fallen humanity. Although people know that there is a God, they refuse to glorify him as God (Rom. 1:21). Of course many Americans say that they still want our nation to be “under God.” However, it is doubtful whether they really want to be under God after all. When most people talk about being “under God” they have little intention of submitting to his sovereign authority. What they really mean is that they want God to endorse whatever they're planning to do. Americans often do this in public life, trying to nationalize God.

This makes it hard for Christians to know whether it is good for God to get mentioned in the Pledge of Allegiance or not. On the one hand, the recent attempt to take God out is a deeply disturbing attack on our fundamental belief in God. The words “under God” are the most important part of the Pledge of Allegiance. They make it clear that the government is not our highest authority, but an authority “established by God” (Rom. 13:2). In fact, without these words it is doubtful whether Christians ought to recite the Pledge at all.

On the other hand, reciting the Pledge may do as much harm as good. Mindlessly repeating the phrase “one nation, under God” encourages Americans to have a casual attitude about God. It is a form of ceremonial deism that does little to promote true reverence for God, let alone faith in Jesus Christ. One reason that many people are willing to tolerate explicit mentions of God in public life is because they know that such words have become almost meaningless. Sadly, the less seriously people take a phrase like “under God,” the more likely it is to be upheld.

Whether it remains part of the Pledge of Allegiance or not, and whether people are willing to admit it or not, the United States of America is a nation under God. It always has always been and it always will, for as the Scripture says, “there is no authority except that which God has established” (Rom. 13:1b).

[Facts and quotations come from David Kravets of the Associated Press, as published in The Philadelphia Inquirer, June 27, 2002. The writer wishes to acknowledge the help of University of Pennsylvania Law Professor David Skeel.]

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