When Michael Newdow initiated his Supreme Court battle to eliminate the phrase "under God" from the Pledge of Allegiance in October of last year, the debate over one of our nation's most visible symbols of civil religion was framed clearly-the battle to remove "under God" was a battle of atheists against theists, of the religious against the irreligious. It was a 21st Century crusade.
However, even as unbelievers picketed and Republican congressmen pledged defiantly from the steps of the Capitol, this secular versus sacred battle marked a monumental shift in political theory.
For centuries, many of the greatest agnostic minds in history sang the praises of state Deities. Coined in the 18th century by Jean Jacques Rousseau, the term "civil religion" was initially descriptive of the state's invocation of simplistic Deistic acknowledgment for the sake of order and unity. "There is therefore a purely civil profession of faith of which the Sovereign should fix the articles," Rousseau commented in his On the Social Contract , "not exactly as religious dogmas but as social sentiments without which a man cannot be a good citizen or a faithful subject." Thinkers like Alexis de Tocqueville knew that the basic tenets of religion were often good for the citizenry-the qualities of monotheistic morality serve as a much needed cohesive where the doctrine of individualism exacerbates a culturally, socially, and ethnically fragmented democracy.
In his speech before The Young Men's Lyceum of Illinois, Abraham Lincoln noted that the law of civil society must be viewed as more than law. It must be viewed as we view religion-faithfully, loyally, and sacrificially. Speaking of our devotion to the law and to democracy Lincoln proclaimed, "And, in short, let it become the political religion of the nation; and let the old and the young, the rich and the poor, the grave and the gay of all sexes and tongues and colors and conditions, sacrifice unceasingly upon its altars." In short, societies without a shared religion or ethnicity need a religion of law and democracy-one that might unify the people under a love of liberty, not deity.
Our own legislators recognized this need in 1954. When the phrase "under God" was added to the previously secular Pledge, President Eisenhower proclaimed, "From this day forward, the millions of our school children will daily proclaim in every city and town, every village and rural schoolhouse, the dedication of our nation and our people to the Almighty." Yet his proclamation was not so much a move of evangelization as an instance of political savvy.
At the time of its inclusion, "under God" was a conscious decision not to "Christianize" the United States, but to distinguish Democracy from Communism. On one side, the Soviet Union attempted to elevate man to the status of God, clinging to the crux of its manifesto, "I am nothing, and I should be everything."
On the other, America chose humility. We stated clearly that we were not free from the constraints of the watchful eye of nature's God-nor did we wish to be. Put simply, we were (and are) creatures made in the image of something far more perfect and complete. We were (and are) bound as a nation by principles greater than us-by a "form" of man that would serve as our Deity.
That is why, for generations, the Michael Newdows of this world recognized that acknowledging a generic higher power was helpful, not harmful to the citizenry. It held the nation together. It calmed the populace. It united us under a creed. To the irreligious (like many of our Founders) hollow recitations of Under God would seem paltry penance for the benefits afforded by state religion's civil unity.
To the devout, however, "under God" may pose a more serious moral threat. One of the most basic tenets of both Judaism and Christianity is Yahweh's statement in the Ten Commandments, "Thou shalt have no other Gods before me;" yet every day millions of Christians, Muslims, and Jews stand first, not to pray to the God of Mohammed or of the Cross, but to pledge allegiance to the god of city, state, and country.
As Joe Carter of Evangelical Outpost commented:
There is a vast and unbridgeable chasm between America's civil religion and Christianity.... The Pledge is, after all, a secular document and the "under god" is referring to the "Divinity" of our country's civil religion. Just as the pagan religion of the Roman Empire was able to incorporate other gods and give them familiar names, the civil religion provides an umbrella for all beliefs to submit under one nondescript, fill-in-the-blank term.
In most monotheistic religions, defending the Pledge would seem idolatry, not citizenry. In 1943 it was the Jehovah's Witness movement that challenged the practice of mandatory Pledge recitation in classrooms and won; and traditionally (even before "under God") religious organization have been some of the most effective opponents of state enforced civil liturgy.
Surprisingly, however, few groups (Jehovah's Witnesses, some Muslims) now refuse the practice and remain in their seats. Few believers, through silence, choose to assert their God over the god of the United States.
The truth of the Pledge is this: When we stand hand over heart, we are not saluting the God of religion, but the god of individual liberty. When we whisper our worship in elementary schools and at PTA ceremonies, we are affirming not our inherent religiosity, but our civic duty. "Under God" is not necessarily a phrase that should frighten Christians and hearten atheists, but as the debate over the Pledge rages in the aftermath of the High Court's half-hearted dismissal, perhaps both sides might like to reconsider their allegiances and their deities.
John Coleman is a freelance writer and assistant director of a fellowship program in Washington D.C. He can be reached at http://johncoleman.typepad.com.