“Our nation was founded on sound Christian principles.” If I had a stick for every time I heard this phrase, I would have enough timber to build a thirty-foot burning effigy of Donald Sterling.
It is a phrase that gets re-iterated ad finitum by crusaders seeking to undermine the separation of church and state (the same people you always hear whining about religious liberty under attack). And it is a phrase that is tacitly reinforced by the current status of our pledge.
We really ought to abolish the pledge altogether. It amounts to little more than indoctrination in a civic religion. It is, essentially, the Nicene Creed of our government. And just like any other form of indoctrination, it targets the impressionable minds of young children. It is not unreasonable to speculate that the founders would have objected to such a practice.
In the meantime, the best we can do is restoring it to its original form: “I pledge allegiance to the Flag of the United States of America, and to the republic for which it stands; one Nation indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” This is how the pledge read prior to the second Red Scare.
Ever since it was amended in 1954 to help distinguish the Pious Holy United States of ‘Murica from the Godless Commies, there have been numerous unsuccessful attempts to restore the pledge to its original text. A family in New Jersey is currently suing their child’s school-district over the issue. A similar case in Massachusetts is also being processed. But if the past is any indication of what is to come, these challenges are not likely to succeed. One might attribute this failure to the seemingly trivial nature of the controversy–they are only words, after all. What’s the harm?
To begin with, “Under God” is not unconstitutional. It does not promote a specific establishment of religion, but rather, generic monotheism. It is, however, both obsolete and harmful to our political culture.
Having been conceived during an era of chauvinistic hysteria, it naturally identifies all non-monotheists as un-patriotic. Polytheists, pantheists and atheists are precluded from swearing their fealty to our democratic overlords. It does not matter how willing your Wiccan, Pastafarian or Manichaean friends are to die for the government. The current pledge says that a true patriot avows faith in the God of monotheism. Some have suggested that non-monotheists merely omit “Under God” when reciting the pledge, but this is a patronizing compromise. As a vestige of McCarthyism, “Under God” does exactly what it was intended to do: ostracize those who do not identify as monotheists.
“Under God” also provides rhetorical ammunition for the meritless arguments of those who would make “The Handmaid’s Tale” a reality if given the chance. While the pledge does explicitly endorse monotheism, it does not specify which “God” is the protector of our country. However, the dominance of Christianity in American society leads many to take it as an implicit promotion of Jehovah, the god of the Judeo-Christian tradition. This only helps to buttress the misconception that our nation was founded upon Christian principles.
The idea that the United States is a “Christian nation” is dangerous and patently false. The Founding Fathers were passionately committed to the ideals of secular government and religious pluralism. Several of them were also emphatically not Christians, but Deists. They belonged to a school of Enlightenment thought that rejected revelation as a source of religious truth, instead depending on reason as a foundation for faith in the Creator. This Creator was not identified with the God of Israel, but a generic “watch-maker” who set the universe in motion. This Creator was also described as a cosmic law-giver who established the Laws of Nature. The Deists favored the “natural religion” of their point of view over what they saw as the credulity and corruption of revealed religion.
Thomas Paine, “the father of the American Revolution,” is perhaps the most infamous Deist among the founders. His 1794 treatise, “The Age of Reason,” is a relentless critique of the Christian religion. In it, he disputes the divine inerrancy of the Bible, the concept of miracles and the legitimacy of Christian doctrine, instead advocating for a “natural religion” based on reason. His skepticism earned him (predictably) widespread condemnation and slander. Bear in mind that this is the very same man who helped spark the Revolution.
The Declaration of Independence reflects a Deistic philosophy. It describes the Creator as “Nature’s God,” rather than merely “God.” Its phraseology emphasizes God’s role as a demiurge which fashioned Nature and delegated its Laws. This is the essence of the Deist’s point of view. Furthermore, the ideals which the Declaration champions—liberty and equality for all people—are principles of liberalism, and they are certainly not anything over which Christianity may claim some sort of monopoly.
John Adams is not the most popular of presidents, but historical context from his administration ought to give us a good idea of which ideas were percolating in the minds of his contemporaries. In 1796, his administration concluded a peace treaty with the Islamic state of Tripoli. In it, he made what went down in history as the most equivocal, ambiguous statement ever made by a politician: “As the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion, —as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion, or tranquility, of Mussulmen,—and as the said States never entered into any war or act of hostility against any Mahometan nation, it is declared by the parties that no pretext arising from religious opinions shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries.”
Regardless of what the Treaty of Tripoli or Declaration say about religion, the Constitution is the supreme law of the land. It does not contain a single reference to God, Lord or the Creator. It also provides some nifty protection against majoritarian tyranny with the Establishment Clause. However, this does not always come in handy, as many people are willing to behave as if the Establishment Clause had never been written.
Despite the abundant evidence against it, the notion that the United States is a Christian nation is only reinforced further by “Under God.” This only fuels the arguments of those in the “battle for religious liberty.” As a result, we end up with statues of the Ten Commandments outside state capitols (lookin’ at you, Oklahoma) and—only this week—a SCOTUS ruling that allows denominational prayer before town council meetings. As the past has shown, we ought to anticipate that allowing such things will merely open the floodgates for further encroachment on the separation of church and state. Religious liberty warriors have proven to be truly tenacious, and their activities have kept organizations like the ACLU and the American Humanist Association very busy with preserving the principles of the Constitution. As the saying goes, “give an inch, and they take a mile.” “Under God” is an inch that needs to go.