October 24, 2002
-- John P. Crossley
If the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals upholds the decision of its three-judge panel regarding the phrase "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance, I believe the Supreme Court would do the nation a favor by refusing to hear the inevitable appeal.
The negative reaction to the decision is both surprising and displaced. It is surprising because the phrase "secular government" is now viewed positively in a world beset with religious fundamentalists wanting to take over governments. One would think that Americans would be proud that their government is "secular." It promises the same freedom and justice to everyone, regardless of religious belief.
The reaction is misplaced because the phrase "under God" in the pledge violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. The phrase may constitute only a minimal establishment, as Judge Fernandez stated in his dissent, but a little bit pregnant is still pregnant. The majority opinion affirmed correctly that the phrase establishes monotheism as a principle of the republic on a par with "liberty and justice for all." Monotheism is not a principle of American government. It doesn't matter whether "God" refers to the robust deity of the Judeo-Christian tradition, the "God of nature" of the Enlightenment tradition, or some anemic blend of divine benevolence: God is simply not a principle of the American form of government.
I was in theological seminary in 1954 when Congress added "under God" to the pledge. We students and professors debated the decision vigorously, and the majority was opposed on precisely the grounds cited by the Ninth Circuit Court. It seemed clear to most of us that adding the phrase was a misguided attempt to differentiate God-fearing America from the atheistic, communistic Soviet Union. That the anti-communist hearings of the House Un-American Activities Committee were going on at the same time lends credibility to this interpretation.
Not all students disagreed with the addition however. I recall one saying, "I like Ike, and if Ike likes it, I like it." The much-admired President indeed liked it, and his humble gratitude to God for helping him lead the allied forces to victory in World War II virtually insured passage.
Some contend that if "under God" is stricken from the pledge, "God Bless America," "My Country 'Tis of Thee," and all patriotic songs that invoke God's blessing will be next to go. This is a false conclusion to draw. It is well-established that Americans, by and large, are a religious people, and in that sense America can be called a religious country. Richard John Neuhaus's "The Naked Public Square" and Stephen Carter's "The Culture of Disbelief" are recent books among many others that demonstrate convincingly the depth of religious commitment in America and argue persuasively for the legitimacy of a strong religious presence in American culture. This is well and good. The problem arises not when people express their religious convictions publicly, but when those convictions are incorporated into official or quasi-official documents and result in discrimination on religious grounds. A religious culture is arguably a good thing, a religious government is not.
The decision of the Ninth Circuit Court is narrowly drawn. It is concerned with the recitation of the pledge at the beginning of each school day and at school assemblies and sports events. School children should not have to affirm that the United States is a nation "under God" if they don't believe it, or if their parents are raising them not to believe it. Since a 1943 Supreme Court decision making it illegal to require the Pledge of Allegiance in public schools -- 11 years before the phrase "under God" was added -- no child has been required to say the pledge. Nevertheless, since the school day starts with the pledge, the Ninth Circuit Court believes that this produces an atmosphere of coercion. Not to say the pledge at all when everyone else is reciting it, or to say all but "under God," would require a child to deliberately "take a stand" and distinguish him or herself from peers. That is a strong demand on a child and an entirely unnecessary one.
The decision in 1954 to add the phrase "under God" did not signal some great advance in American political theory. It grew out of a mixture of gratitude to God for victory in the War and resentment of godless Soviet communism. Neither is a good reason to compromise the clarity of America's secular government. Religious Americans can thank God for that secularity, for it is only a secular government that can guarantee religious freedom.
John P. Crossley is associate professor of religion and director of the School of Religion at the University of Southern California. In the 1970s he was chairman of the Church-State Committee of the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California.