One nation, indivisible

It’s amazing what a ruckus two little words—"under God"—caused last week. Even as many people were bravely applauding the fundamental rightness of the decision, politicians were falling over each other in their hurry to denounce it. Clearly, the decision has revealed a fault line in America’s sense of itself.

Americans pride themselves on enjoying freedom of religion, but at the same time most think of themselves as part of a God-loving, God-fearing nation. The problem is that the two values sometimes collide, as they have in this situation.

The history of the Pledge of Allegiance is instructive. Its author was Francis Bellamy, a Christian socialist minister who, in 1892, chaired a committee of state superintendents of education that was planning the public schools’ quadricentennial celebration of Columbus Day that year. The pledge was to be part of the event.

What Bellamy wanted, 30 years after the Civil War, was to emphasize the indivisibility of the “one nation” and its commitment to “liberty and justice for all.” The original pledge made no mention of God or religion. What united America, Bellamy believed, was the idea of democracy, not a religious belief.

The words “under God” were added in 1954, during the Cold War, following a campaign by the Catholic lay group Knights of Columbus. If the Soviets were “godless” communists, the thinking went, then we Americans were believers, by God.

The problem, of course, is that not all Americans believe in the Judeo-Christian God. Some are Hindus or Buddhists or Taoists or garden-variety atheists. When these Americans, who number in the millions, are required, as part of attending a public school, to pledge their allegiance to “one nation, under God,” they may feel abused, as if their view of their country is somehow invalid.

Yes, they can live with it, just as they live with all the other professions of monotheism, on coins and in courtroom oaths and religious invocations before government meetings. So far, anyway, our government has gone only so far in identifying with monotheism. It hasn’t engaged in actual oppression of non-monotheistic religions.

Still, government profession of monotheism is wrong. As the appeals court judges noted, American government should be strictly neutral toward religion. And the pledge, as now written, is not neutral. It purports a belief in monotheism that, as the decision notes, would be analytically identical “to a profession that we are a nation under Jesus … under Vishnu … under Zeus or … under no god.”

Even as the politicians were rushing last week to denounce the decision, a remarkable number of people were voicing support. Newspaper letters pages are filled with praise for the judges. Older Americans write remembering the pre-1954 pledge and feeling happier about it then. World War II veterans write of combat buddies who died believing in that pledge. Others write of simply refusing to say the words “under God” while reciting the pledge—and feeling like strangers in their own land.

Ideally, the Pledge of Allegiance would be inclusive of all Americans, and all Americans would feel comfortable—indeed, joyful—in reciting it. The way to make that possible is to return it to its pre-1954 form by removing the phrase "under God." That simple step would again make us—all of us—truly "one nation, indivisible."