Friday, Dec. 6, 2013
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The recent Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals ruling upholding mandatory recitations of the pledge of allegiance in public schools raises troubling questions. The words "under God" have the effect of requiring students to personally affirm the sovereignty of God, whether this is their personal belief or not. They also link national loyalty to religious loyalty. The implication is that you can't be patriotic unless you also believe in God. This is problematic not only for those who hold non-theistic beliefs, but also for many who have a deep God-oriented religious faith.
The words "under God" were added to the pledge in 1954, at the height of the cold war, to support the claim that God was on our side in the struggle against those we often called "godless communists." The implication was that our nation, and in turn our government, operates with a sort of divine stamp of approval. This idea has long been present in American self-understanding. The problem is that it can easily lead to the view that dissent and disagreement are not simply unpatriotic, but unreligious as well. When we reinforce this view daily to our school children, the results can be troubling, especially for those who have different beliefs or who may be going through a normal stage of questioning their beliefs. It can send a message that says in effect, "if you doubt your belief in God, then you must also doubt your loyalty to the nation." This violates one of the oldest principles of church-state separation, namely that a person's political standing in the community should not depend on his or her affirmation of particular religious beliefs.
The words "under God" seem to make loyalty to country subordinate to loyalty to God. Ironically, this very belief is the reason many deeply religious people are opposed to state-mandated recitations the pledge. The Founders held the view that our most essential rights are not derived from the state. Instead, they are given to us by the Creator, or are inherent in the human condition, and therefore cannot be taken away by the government. While it is true that many of our country's basic principles are grounded in religious beliefs, it is also true that the principle of God-given fundamental rights does not simply equate God and country. Instead, it intentionally separates them. This is why our religious principles can become the basis for civil disobedience; we are first loyal to God, or to our consciences, not to the state. This, too, is a biblical principle. The Bible is full of instances where those in power were called to account - by God, speaking through the prophets - for abuses of power. The prophets, the dissenters of their time, spoke of a God who stands for justice on behalf of society's powerless, not for nationalism.
By linking loyalty to country with loyalty to God, the pledge's current wording promotes a view that is the opposite of what the founders intended and contrary to the religious principles of many believers. And forcing school children to make a state-sanctioned religiously-based pledge violates these basic American principles.