“When I was in elementary school, we started each day by standing, facing the American flag, putting our hand over our heart and saying these words: “I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the republic for which it stands, one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.“
Those simple words and that simple act has been embroiled in controversy from the beginning of its implementation as an institutional act. In the late 1930s, a family of Jehovah Witnesses sued a Pennsylvania school board because their child was expelled for refusing to recite the Pledge of Allegiance, because their religion forbids the saying of oaths. Their case made it to the Supreme Court, where in 1940, by an 8-1 majority, the Supreme Court ruled that the Jehovah Witness family was wrong, that one’s religious convictions did not relieve an individual from compliance with valid general rules that regulated conduct on matters that pertained directly to the national interest. Famed liberal Justice Felix Frankfurter authored the opinion.
That settled the matter — temporarily. Soon thereafter, another Jehovah Witness family brought another suit on the matter of honoring the flag, and this time the Supreme Court found in their favor. Justice Harlan Stone maintained that the rights of the individual conscience outweighed the state’s interest in honoring a national symbol. People were thus allowed the freedom not to affirm the Pledge of Allegiance if they so chose.
Leap from the 1930s and 1940s to 2002. In that year the Ninth U. S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which has jurisdiction over our country’s nine western states, ruled that public school children could not say the Pledge of Allegiance because the phrase, “one nation under God” constituted a government endorsement of religion. After all, the Constitution’s Establishment Clause pledges that the government will not act in such a manner as to advance a particular religion or restrict its free exercise. Saying the words, “under God,” in the Court’s opinion, represented an unconstitutional governmental endorsement of theism. This ruling raised a couple of obvious questions: to what degree can our U.S. government countenance and promote the importance of the spiritual dimension in our society’s life? Secondly, to what degree should our U.S. government countenance and promote the importance of the spiritual dimension in our society’s life?
Note the change in tone from the 1940s to the twenty-first century. In the 1940s the suits brought by the Jehovah Witnesses raised the question, ‘Do individuals and groups have the right to dissent from a practice that the American populace generally endorses?’ The Supreme Court ultimately said Yes. In the twenty-first century, the question had become, ‘Do the American people have the right to pledge allegiance to their flag and “one nation under God” in a public school or government-sanctioned setting?’ The Court said No.
Let me add a word of historical context. Our Baptist forefathers were adamant in arguing against any government sanction of religion. We are the intellectual and spiritual heirs of Thomas Helwys, the first English Baptist pastor, who argued that not even the King of England had the right to coerce the conscience, that people must be free to be a Christian, Jew, Muslim or a nonbeliever without the government restricting a particular religious point of view. He died in prison for that principle. We are the heirs of John Leland, that Virginia Baptist preacher who befriended and exerted a formative influence upon James Madison, who authored our nation’s Bill of Rights guaranteeing religious freedom. Colonial Baptists endured finings, imprisonment, and floggings rather than pay taxes to support state churches in nine American colonies. An early Rhode Island Baptist dissenter, Roger Williams, argued that there should be a wall of separation of between church and state. In the 1960s when the Supreme Court outlawed the reading of state-sponsored prayers in the classroom, wise Baptists concurred, arguing that our government should not be in the prayer-writing business. When the Supreme Court outlawed government-mandated Scripture reading, wise Baptists agreed, opining that our government should not be in the business of choosing and promoting any faith’s Holy Writ. Owing to our rich heritage, we as Baptists can appreciate the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals’ anxiety over entangling the government in a state-sponsored acknowledgment of theism.
However, having said that, I was surprisingly joyous when the Supreme Court overturned the Ninth Circuit Court’s decision on a technicality and allowed children to continue to say the Pledge of Allegiance in school. I confess I was a bit shocked by my own reaction. Yet I had good reason for welcoming the reversal of the Ninth Circuit Court’s decision. This is why: the Ninth Circuit Court’s stated goal of absolute government neutrality toward people’s acknowledgment of God is an imaginative fiction. That Court was trying to say that our government has no interest in promoting the spiritual dimension of life. But the truth is, when one studies the history of our government, one realizes that our national leadership has always known that absolute government neutrality toward the spiritual dimension of life has never been attainable – or advisable. From our nation’s inception, our government leaders have always acknowledged that the spiritual dimension is an important influence in our society and has shaped and undergirded the values of our national character.
Let me state the obvious, Thanksgiving and Christmas are religious holidays – they are also national holidays. Church property is tax exempt. The first and every succeeding national Congress has opened each day’s session with prayer. The United States Senate employs a chaplain. The U.S. military and government hospitals employ chaplains to minister to the needs of their people. Our coins read, “In God we trust.” Even the “Crier” in the Supreme Court intones, “God save the United States and this honorable Court.” Witnesses in court are sworn under oath with the words, “So help me God.” Our government has always acknowledged the fact that a spiritual dimension is integral to our society. Justice William Douglas stated an obvious historical reality when he wrote for the Court in 1952, “We are a religious people whose institutions presuppose a Supreme Being.” Our Founding Fathers were adamant in asserting that government should not further a particular religious view. But they also recognized that the spiritual dimension has a natural, indeed, inevitable, role to play in our national and governmental life.
I think back to that 1940 decision of Justice Frankfurter. Yes, he was on shaky legal grounds when he did not allow individuals the freedom to dissent from a general affirmation of our flag – that’s why the Court soon reversed him. But I think that wise old judge caught a glimpse of something profound. The time was 1940. He looked at the American public and saw a social fabric rent apart by Depression-era pressures. He saw Western Europe groaning under Hitler and his ruthless minions, eager for empire. He saw the specter of a rising atheistic communism, also eager for an empire. He looked at his world and knew that civilization as he knew it would not last much longer unless the American people exercised unity of commitment and vision. He recognized that the state had a compelling need to promote a sense of unity among its people, indeed, the state had a compelling responsibility to seek a means of evoking a unified sentiment. He saw the Pledge of Allegiance as one small tool the state could use to knit our divided nation into a unified vision. He saw the Pledge of Allegiance as one small tool in impressing upon people the honor of being a citizen of this country. He saw the Pledge as being one way that we as a nation could see that what unites us is greater than what divides us. Frankfurter may have been wrong in saying that an individual didn’t have the right to dissent from a common agenda. But he was right in recognizing a fundamental unity is crucial to the health of the country and the future vitality of the world.
In our own highly polarized society, where we can agree on little, even on fundamental issues, the Pledge of Allegiance reminds us of the vital truth that what unites us is far greater than what divides us. Our commonality is far more important than what differentiates us. For all of our differences, we are one people, forming an indivisible union of United States. And it is an honor to be a citizen of this country.
You probably don’t know that the Pledge of Allegiance was written by a Baptist minister – who also happened to be a Socialist – Francis Bellamy. Ironically, this Baptist minister’s original version of the Pledge did not include the affirmation, “one nation under God.” That phrase was added to our Pledge in 1954, at the insistence of President Eisenhower. Some have said that the phrase “one nation under God,” was simply a by-product of Cold War rhetoric. After all, in the mid-50s we were locked in mortal combat with an atheistic world-view, and we wanted expressly to contrast our way of life with theirs, so our nation’s leaders added the words, “one nation under God,” as a phrase of distinction. But the phrase “one nation under God” says something theologically important. It is more than mere Cold War rhetoric. It says something profound about our civilization’s understanding of our government – it is under God. Our government — all governments — are under God. The phrase, “one nation under God” underscores our belief that there is something higher and truer than our governments, that government is not the be-all and end-all for guaranteeing human rights, that governments are always under a higher authority. Governments are always of the people, by the people, and for the people, but governments are also under the judgment of a higher authority. Our government, like every government, is ”under God,” under the authority of a divine Judge.
Thomas Jefferson’s aversion to institutional religion was well-known. But on this July 4th, as we celebrate our nation’s Declaration of Independence, a document penned by Jefferson, we find that Jefferson’s statement was infused with a sense of the divine. When Jefferson explained to the world via the Declaration of Independence why the fledging United States of America was rebelling against England, he maintained that we were doing so in order to claim the rights that “Nature and Nature’s God” gave us. That was his first sentence. His second and immortal sentence has given hope to oppressed people everywhere: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.” As he closed his Declaration, Jefferson stated to the world that in this venture the American colonies were going over the head of the King of England to appeal to that “Supreme Judge of all the world.” Thomas Jefferson may not have been a conventional Christian. But the Declaration of Independence which he penned is imbued throughout with a recognition of the reality and authority of the divine!
When we affirm that our nation is “under God,” we affirm that basic human rights do not derive from earthly governments. Basic human rights root in God. Human rights are God-endowed and meant to be beyond the infringement of governmental power. They are inalienable freedoms, granted to us by God. Human rights are divine gifts. Governments cannot, should not, abrogate them. What Thomas Jefferson said in his Declaration echoed the wisdom of the Psalmist who maintained to his people, “The king is not saved by his great army; a warrior is not delivered by his great strength; the war horse is a vain hope for victory. For truly, God is our true Help and our Shield.” The Psalmist says that true security of a nation is found in its trust in God’s hesed, God’s steadfast love. Ultimately our national strength is not measured by our smart bombs; the power of our nation is not calibrated by our Gross National Product; the honor of our nation cannot be validated by our high standard of living. Ultimately, our national greatness is measured by our compassion, our goodness, our concern for fairness, our investment in the powerless, by our deliverance of the oppressed. What it means to be a nation under God is to trust in the hesed, in the steadfast love, of our God, and to embody God’s values by our actions and attitudes. The security of any nation is found in its trust in God’s hesed, and our human rights root in a transcendent God, who has endowed us with transcendent values intended for all people.
If the ideal of governmental neutrality toward the spiritual dimension in our society is ever fully realized, then we will ultimately undermine the foundational virtues that gave rise to that society. Nations attempting to become neutral toward God soon become neutral toward humanity. Systems that try destroying God eventuate in destroying people. The virtues that shape our national character at our best are rooted in the Spirit of God. And, though it is not perfect, the Pledge of Allegiance sets before us a high societal ambition. We strive to be one nation under God, indivisible, seeking liberty and justice for all. Though we might fall short of the ideal, it is an ideal worth striving for.