The Pledge of Allegiance, recited daily by most schoolchildren across America, has become a topic of considerable controversy since a challenge to the phrase "under God," which was added to the pledge in 1954, was recently held by a California federal appeals court to be a violation of the Establishment Clause. Many American citizens, religious leaders, and legislators were immediately outraged by the decision. The day after the decision, the U.S. Senate voted unanimously to reaffirm the current wording of the Pledge of Allegiance. The next day, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a similar resolution by a vote of 416 to 3, affirming its belief that the ruling is inconsistent with the U.S. Supreme Court's First Amendment jurisprudence. Even President George W. Bush weighed in on the controversy, calling the ruling ridiculous and inconsistent with the traditions and history of America. Bush stated that his administration would formally ask the U.S. Supreme Court to overrule the California decision. And in the days following the decision, surveys of Americans, according to the Washington Post, showed that 87 percent support retaining the phrase "under God" in the pledge.
In light of the considerable interest generated by these developments, it is important to examine the facts of the case that created this firestorm of controversy, the history of the pledge and how it achieved its place of prominence in Americans' estimation, and the pledge's place in defining the religious aspects of the American public philosophy.
Every morning the second graders in the Elk Grove Unified School District near Sacramento, California rise to recite the Pledge of Allegiance. Michael Newdow, a Sacramento atheist, objected to the practice because the pledge includes the phrase, "One Nation under God," and he did not want his daughter exposed to, in his words, a "religious idea that certain people do not agree with."
Newdow filed a lawsuit in 2001 that was dismissed at the federal district court level. But in June 2002, a three-judge panel for the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with Newdow, holding, in a 2-1 vote, that "although the students cannot be forced to participate in recitation of the pledge, the school district is nonetheless conveying a message of state endorsement of a religious belief when it requires public school teachers to recite, and lead the recitation of, the current form of the pledge." Students in public schools in the states covered by the 9th Circuit (Alaska, Arizona, California, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, and Washington), pending the case's final outcome, are still reciting the pledge at the beginning of each day.
Legal scholars claimed that it was very likely that the court's opinion would be overturned upon reconsideration by a full panel of the 9th Circuit (11 of its 24 justices), and if not then, upon reaching the U.S. Supreme Court. In the summer of 2003, a full panel of judges on the 9th Circuit Court affirmed the court's earlier decision. "We may not-we must not-allow public sentiment or outcry to guide our decisions," judge Stephen Reinhardt wrote in the 46-page opinion. "It is particularly important that we understand the nature of our obligations and the strength of our constitutional principles in times of national crisis. It is then that our freedoms and our liberties are in the greatest peril." The U.S. Supreme Court has already agreed to hear an appeal of the case, no doubt because of the importance of the case to America's most sacred traditions.
The 9th Circuit's decision is the first time that a U.S. court has ruled any part of the pledge unconstitutional. The ruling, if affirmed by the U.S. Supreme Court, would mean that schoolchildren nationwide would no longer be permitted to recite the pledge in its present form. The 9th Circuit, however, is certain that its ruling is required by the Constitution. In its initial written ruling, the court said that the "under God" portion of the pledge violates the Establishment Clause, which says, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion. . . ." According to the court, "A profession that we are a nation "under God" is identical, for Establishment Clause purposes, to a profession that we are a nation "under Jesus," a nation "under Vishnu," a nation "under Zeus," or a nation under "no God," because none of these professions can be neutral with respect to religion," which is what the Constitution requires.
The court's decision, decided under the "Lemon test," one of several tests the U.S. Supreme Court uses to determine violations of the Establishment Clause, is technically correct, since Congress's decision in 1954 to add the phrase "under God" (1) does not carry a secular purpose, and (2) as the obvious effect of advancing religion. This test is frequently used by courts to uphold the important principle of the separation of church and state.
But in many cases the Supreme Court does not follow this test. The Court frequently accommodates expressions of civil religion-public rituals and symbols that express the nexus of the political order to the divine reality. In addition to the Pledge of Allegiance, the most common symbols of American civil religion are the national motto, "In God We Trust," which also appears on U.S. currency; the Declaration of Independence, which has four references to God; observance of a national day of prayer; and the utilization of government-paid chaplains in the military, U.S. Congress, and state legislatures. Accommodating these religious expressions takes the rough edge off the separation of church and state, and helps to maintain the American government's fundamental credibility. Perhaps Sociologist Max Weber was correct in positing that people lose faith in a political system that is unmoored from the people's principal source of values, which in America has always been God. Civil religion has its downside, but who can argue that it does not provide part of the social glue that holds together the American system.
But is the "under God" portion of the pledge really so critical to America's stability? If the phrase was not added to the Pledge until 1954, can we really say that American ideals would suffer if the phrase were removed? Why do we have a Pledge of Allegiance anyway? Who institutionalized the pledge as the cornerstone of American patriotic programs and indoctrination in the public schools? When did it originate and what was its original purpose? Ls it an indispensable part of the American civil religion?
The Pledge indeed has an interesting history. In 1892, a socialist named Francis Bellamy wrote the Pledge of Allegiance for Youth's Companion, a national family magazine for youth published in Boston. The magazine had one of the largest national circulations of its day, about 500,000. Two businessmen, Daniel Ford and James Upham, his nephew, owned Youth's Companion.
According to John Baer, who has written a useful history of the Pledge of Allegiance (The Pledge of Allegiance, A Centennial History, 1892-1992, Annapolis, Md.: Free State Press, Inc., 1992), in 1891, Upham had the idea of using the celebration of the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus's discovery of America to promote the use of the flag in the public schools. At the time, the American flag was rarely seen in the schools. The magazine decided to try to change that. In 1888, the magazine began a campaign to sell American flags to the public schools, and by 1892, had sold American flags to more than 26,000 schools. The magazine then hired Daniel Ford's radical young friend, Baptist minister and Christian Socialist Francis Bellamy, to assist with the flag movement. Bellamy, who frequently lectured and preached on the virtues of socialism and the evils of capitalism, had been forced to resign from his Boston church, the Bethany Baptist Church, due to his socialist leanings.
By February 1892, Bellamy and Upham had lined up the National Education Association to support the Youth's Companion as a sponsor of the national public schools' observance of Columbus Day along with the use of the American flag. By june, they had arranged for Congress and President Benjamin Harrison to announce a national proclamation making the public school ceremony the center of the national Columbus Day celebrations for 1892. Bellamy wrote the program for this celebration, including its flag salute, the Pledge of Allegiance. His version was, "I pledge allegiance to my flag and to the Republic for which it stands-one nation indivisible-with liberty and justice for all." On 12 October 1892, the quadricentennial of Columbus's arrival, more than twelve million children recited the Pledge of Allegiance, thus beginning a common ritual in the nation's schools.
While the Pledge of Allegiance was in some ways no more than a publicity stunt to help the owners of Youth's Companion to sell American flags, in other ways it was a genuine effort to promote patriotism. The last twenty years of the nineteenth century was a pivotal period in our country's social and economic history. Labor conditions were terrible, the unions were new and weak, and monopolies were still legal. Some, searching for answers to the nation's economic ills, began trumpeting socialism. Reformers were fighting for universal public education, while heated debates were raging over funding for parochial education. Meanwhile, immigrants were pouring into the country and anti-Catholic and anti-Jewish sentiments were on the rise. The country was still healing from the Civil War, women were demanding the vote, prohibitionists were on the march, and African-Americans were beginning to dream of equal rights for themselves. The country was in need of a unifying movement, something that could strengthen the bonds which held Americans together in common purpose, and the pledge was promoted as such a device.
The original pledge, recited while giving a stiff, uplifted right-hand salute, was criticized and discontinued during WWII because of its resemblance to the Hitler salute. At the first National Flag Conference in Washington D.C. on 14 june 1923, the words "the Flag of the United States" replaced, for sake of clarity, "my flag." A year later, the words "of America" were added. It was not until 1942 that Congress officially recognized the Pledge of Allegiance. One year later, in june 1943, in West Virginia vs. Barnette, the Supreme Court ruled that schoolchildren could not be forced to recite the pledge if their religious beliefs did not allow it.
The addition of the words "under God" to the pledge actually began as a campaign of the Knights of Columbus in 1951. The Knights, a Catholic fraternal organization well known for its patriotism, believed that adding the phrase would acknowledge the "dependence of our nation and its people upon the Creator of the Universe." The Knights began pitching the idea to members of Congress. On 23 April 1954, Congressman Louis Rabault (D-Mich.) introduced the measure in the House of Representatives. According to Rabault, the addition of the words "under God" would "bring to [our schoolchildren] a deeper understanding of the real meaning of patriotism." For Rabault, a vocal critic of communism, recitation of the pledge would imbed in the minds of schoolchildren the notion that the United States, unlike antiGod communist nations, was a nation deeply committed to God. "From the root of atheism," he added, "stems the evil weed of communism."
President Dwight D. Eisenhower, likewise looking for ways to certify communism as inconsistent with American ideals, was in favor of the proposal. He began a forceful campaign to convince Congress of the merits of the Rabault proposal. For Eisenhower, adding "under God" to the pledge made perfectly good sense: "Without God, there could be no form of American government, nor an American way of life," he declared. The American people also caught the spirit of the movement. According to a Gallup poll of 9 May 1953, 69 percent of the American public favored adding the phrase "under God" to the pledge, while only 21 percent opposed it and 10 percent had no opinion. In June 1954, both houses of Congress overwhelmingly passed a resolution to add "under God" to the pledge. On Flag Day, 14 June, President Eisenhower signed the measure into law. The name of God had been added to the nation's Pledge of Allegiance, prompting Eisenhower to proclaim, "From this day forward, the millions of our schoolchildren will daily proclaim . . . the dedication of our nation and our people to the Almighty. To anyone who truly loves America, nothing could be more inspiring than to contemplate this re-dedication of our youth, in each school morning, to our country's true meaning." Eisenhower added, "In this way we are reaffirming the transcendence of religious faith in America's heritage and future; in this way we shall constantly strengthen those spiritual weapons which forever will be our country's most powerful resource in peace and war." The Pledge was now both a patriotic oath and a public prayer.
Since its inception in the late nineteenth century, the Pledge of Allegiance has become a major centerpiece in America's civil religion. It stands in a long tradition of public acknowledgments of God that embody the American civil religion. Public acknowledgment of the existence of God has been part of American civil religion from the earliest days of our nationhood. Beginning in 1774, the Continental Congress opened its sessions each day with the prayers of its chaplain. To ensure that its prayers were nonsectarian, the Gongress made special efforts to appoint chaplains of different Protestant faiths. Its official documents, including the Declaration of Independence and the Articles of Confederation, included generic references to God designed not only to reflect Congress's theistic worldview but to appeal to and capture the approval of a wide variety of religious adherents. Since the ratification of the Constitution in 1789, both houses of Congress have continued unabated the practice of beginning their sessions with chaplain-led prayers.
Every president has mentioned God in his inaugural address, although none has used sectarian references. At his first inaugural, President Washington noted that "[i]t would be peculiarly improper to omit in this first official act my fervent supplications to that Almighty Being who rules the universe." President Adams addressed the "Being who is supreme above all." The tradition has continued, unbroken, to this day. President John F. Kennedy made three references to God in his inaugural speech, President Reagan made more than a dozen references to the deity, evangelist Billy Graham led a prayer at George Bush's oath-taking ceremony, and Bill Clinton and George W. Bush made several references to God in their inaugural addresses. Publicacknowledgment of God occurs not only at presidential inaugurations but at many other public events as well. Every president, for example, with the exception of Jefferson and Jackson, has promulgated thanksgiving proclamations; since the days of Harry Truman, the nation has observed a National Day of Prayer; and the religious roots of the nation's people is usually acknowledged at such events as the annual White House Christmas Tree dedication.
While civil religion is mixed with elements of the mythic, patriotic, and secular, it is also religious. It is its religious character that causes expressions of civil religion such as legislative prayer, graduation prayers in public schools, Christinas and Hanukkah displays, and now the Pledge of Allegiance to be challenged as violations of the Establishment Clause. In the case of legislative prayer, the Supreme Court has held that such practices, because they have a long and unbroken tradition in American political life, do not violate the Establishment Clause. Holiday displays have been held not to violate the Establishment Clause if their religious message is muted by surrounding secular symbols. Prayer offered by a clergyman at a public school graduation ceremony has been held to violate the Establishment Clause as an inappropriate government sponsorship of religion. The Supreme Court has never decided a case that dealt directly with the constitutionality of the Fledge of Allegiance.
The federal courts have struggled in their efforts to assess the constitutional propriety of rituals that publicly acknowledge God. The difficulty in evaluating such cases is that the religion advanced is typically nonsectarian, symbolic, and without specific theological content-in short, civil religion. The courts, with lawyers sitting as judges, have not been particularly sophisticated in their ability to distinguish civil religion from traditional religion. Occasionally, the Supreme Court has applied a vague concept called "ceremonial deism" (e.g., Lynch v. Donnelly, 1984), to justify some practices of civil religion, but for the most part, the Court has seemed to be totally unaware of the large body of scholarly literature that has appeared in recent decades giving analysis to civil religion as a distinctive form of religion. The Court has never defined "ceremonial deism"; the term seems to be mere shorthand for the Court's judgment that a practice ought to be constitutional because it is not really religious, either because it has culturally lost the significance it once had or because it is used only to solemnize a public occasion.
Civil religion has been for much of American history, and remains, a vital cultural force. It is manifested in our own day in prayers at presidential inaugurations, the invocation used each time the Supreme Court itself hears argument ("God save this honorable court"), Thanksgiving and National Day of Prayer proclamations, the phrase "In God We Trust" on coins, various Scripture quotations inscribed on government buildings ("Moses the Lawgiver" is the inscription above the Supreme Court's bench), even the ritual presidential benediction, "God Bless America," used frequently by Presidents Bush and Clinton, and of course, the words "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance.
All of these practices are violations of a strict notion of the separation of church and state. Yet they form a rich tradition of practices that are culturally and judicially accommodated. That the judiciary continues to validate these practices without elevating them to constitutionally protected status is an indication that the Court wishes not to pursue a rigid principle of church-state separation, and in fact sanctions civil religion as a kind of middle ground between a too-strict separationism and a too-lenient accommodationism.
The God acknowledged in civil religion's rituals is a God unknown to any traditional religion. Civil religion's prayers are not the prayers of any particular community of faith. In theory, no doctrine of traditional religion is promoted or offended by these invocations. The God of civil religion is indeed unique. As scholar Robert Bellah puts it:
Though much is selectively derived from Christianity, this religion is clearly not itself Christianity. . . . The God of the civil religion is not only rather "unitarian," he is also on the austere side, much more related to order, law, and right than to salvation and love. Even though he is somewhat deist in cast, he is by no means simply a watchmaker God.
It seems clear that the God invoked in the Pledge of Allegiance is simultaneously the God of Christianity, judaism, Islam, or any other religion that gives credence to a monotheistic god. It is not Jesus, Jehovah, or Allah that is invoked, but the generic "God." As the 9th Circuit Court stated, it might even be Vishnu or Zeus that is invoked. One can merely "fill in the blank" in terms of the precise order of faith to which the God of the pledge belongs. It is, in fact, this nondiscriminatory aspect of the pledge's reference to God that makes it acceptable as a "national" ritual. But is the pledge's God therefore an idolatrous substitute for the real God? Which "God" is referred to when a student pledges allegiance to the flag of the nation that is "one nation, under God?" Ultimately, civil religion becomes a threat to authentic religious faith.
A related problem, one made famous by Jehovah's Witnesses, is that offering a pledge to anyone or anything other than God is idolatrous. In 1943, in West Virginia v. Barnette, the Witnesses won the right to abstain from reciting the Pledge of Allegiance in public schools on the ground that it violates God's commandment against worshipping idols. For Witnesses, and others who agree with them on the idolatrous nature of making a pledge to a flag, to pledge allegiance to anything but God is to pledge allegiance to something outside of God. As one devotee wrote recently, "Nobody can serve two masters (Matthew 6:24, Luke 16:13). just like Jesus could not pledge allegiance to both Israel and God at the same time, man cannot pledge allegiance to both country and God."
Several additional matters of importance emerge from this discussion. First, civil religion is in many ways independent of both the church and the state. Civil religion is independent of the church because its conception of God is unique and does not follow the doctrine of any particular religious group. Moreover, it is unconcerned with much of what preoccupies traditional religion. Civil religion has no theology of the person, no view of creation, no eschatology, no ecclesiology, and no single creed. In a religiously pluralistic society, any sectarian civil religion would be unable to unite the society's diverse groups. Many Americans, with the notable exception of some small groups such as the Amish, embrace both the civil religion and involvement in more traditional houses of worship, seeing, for the most part, no conflict between the two.
But herein lies the rub. There is a conflict between the two. The God of the pledge is not actually the God of genuine faith; it is the God of patriotism, the God who aligns his own interests with those of the nation. That Americans will combine nationalistic sentiment with religious fervor is, on the one hand, something to be appreciated. It demonstrates that America is very much a nation populated by persons of deep faith. On the other hand, there are dangers in the blending of patriotism and religion. If we use the pledge or similar civil religious symbols to think of our nation as superior to others, or to believe that God's compassion and love for America exceeds his compassion and concern for other nations, or as a rallying cry in which we identify too closely our own national interests with those of God, then we have blurred the boundaries between faith and patriotism. God is not simply a resource that we can harness to serve our national interests. God always remains above culture and nation, which remain under his scrutiny and judgment. Americanism can never be synonymous with God, thus the claim that God is on our side may be more of an expression of blasphemy than godliness. Civil religion tends to enshrine the political order and, as Senator Mark Hatfield once said, for those of traditional faith, borders on idolatry and "fails to speak of repentance, salvation, and God's standard of justice." "God," a sacred and holy name for people of faith, becomes in the Pledge of Allegiance only a receptacle for popular patriotic fervor, bereft of any real theological meaning. Calling upon the name of God becomes no different from the practice of the Romans who invoked the favor of the gods as they went to battle to destroy another victim on the road to world domination. The God of American civil religion is a God stripped of his real essence and instead becomes a God used to advance national interests, be it anti-communism in the 1950s when the phrase "under God" was added to the pledge, or in the 2000s, as the God of the bumper sticker "God Bless America" whom America calls upon to fight the war on terrorism. God becomes a watered down deity, a supreme power called upon only to bolster patriotic sentiment and advance national goals. Unfortunately, the distinction is lost on most people, who join as one the God of their own faith and the God of public piety.
Such is the problem with American civil religion. Its advantage is that it is a unifier, a means of drawing together the many into one. But its problem is that it is a form of idolatry in which God is indistinguishable from nation, the convergence of which is worship of the nation rather than God himself. Of course French sociologist Emile Durkheim was surely correct in saying that civil religion is inevitable in all national contexts. Sociologically speaking, it enables the people of a nation to believe that their own God is also the national God, and that there is no conflict between the two. Many people of faith therefore aggressively protect civil religious symbols. This is already the case with respect to the Pledge of Allegiance. One organization has refused to wait until the outcome of the pledge controversy is decided in the courts. Gateways to Better Education, a nonprofit organization that promotes ways public schools can include lessons on America's religious heritage, by 1 june 2003 had already sent out more than 200,000 patriotic posters in response to the desire of parents, educators, and school officials for help in teaching the Pledge of Allegiance and clarifying the phrase "under God." To explain the phrase, "under God," the poster reads: "Our Founders understood that the government does not give us our freedom. Our freedom ultimately comes from God and the government was established to secure that God-given freedom. The Declaration of Independence states, "We hold these truths to be selfevident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness-that to secure these rights governments are instituted among men. . . ."
The Pledge of Allegiance is indeed a rather unique ritual. Among the nations of the world, only the USA and the Philippines, imitating the USA, have a pledge to their flag. Not even in the Soviet Union was there such a pledge to the flag. There was a similar practice utilized by the Soviets, an oath taken when children, upon becoming nine years of age, would enter the Pioneer Youth. The "Pioneer" program, of which Soviet children were members until becoming age fourteen, represented the Soviet effort to institutionalize commitment to a political idea. It was similar to the Boy Scouts or Girl Scouts, but more universal and a bit more militaristic. Children were proud to utter the oath of induction: "I, (name), entering the ranks of the Ail-Union Pioneer Organization named after Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, solemnly promise before my comrades: to love my motherland fervently; to live, study, and fight as the great Lenin bequeathed us, as the Communist Party teaches us. I promise always to observe the laws of the pioneers of the Soviet Union." But the pledge was to an ideal, not a piece of cloth.
Recently, while in Russia, I shared with a group of Russian scholars the American habit, practiced especially in the schools, of pledging allegiance to the flag of the United States. Unaware of this practice, they were amazed, literally dumbfounded, that we would engage in what they considered to be outright propaganda. No strangers to propaganda themselves, they found it odd and hypocritical that the United States, so committed to personal freedom, would virtually mandate that all children salute and pledge the American flag. One might respond that the pledge is only voluntary, especially since the Barnette case in 1943, alluded to earlier. In fact, prior to Newdow only thirty-one of the fifty states had legislation that required or encouraged daily recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance in public school classrooms. But in the wake of the 9th Circuit's decision, eight additional states already have passed statutes requiring that the pledge be recited, and others are considering doing the same. Some of these states, in keeping with Barnette, exempt those who might conscientiously object, but not all of them make such provision for those who wish not to pledge the flag. These statutes reflect not only anger at the Newdow decision, but are undoubtedly also related to the wave of patriotism that the nation has experienced in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist strikes. These measures appear as harmless efforts to restore American patriotism, but they can also be seen as political propaganda designed to whip American children into moral shape pursuant to a uniform religious and patriotic code.
Despite the noble efforts of many people-mostly people of sincere faith-promoting civil religion sacrifices genuine faith in the name of patriotism. Most people will forever fail to see the distinction, of course, thus movements like the one to post flags in public school classrooms by Youth's Companion more than a hundred years ago, and movements to produce posters to explain the "under God" phrase in the pledge by Gateways to Better Education in our own day. Most people are comforted by the presence of civil religious symbols all around them. The Supreme Court, of course, is not in the business of managing and nurturing the faith of the people for whom its rulings are binding. Its business is to examine the constitutionality of a particular practice. Given that the Supreme Court has many times approved of civil religious symbols under the banner of "ceremonial deism," it is likely that this Court will sanction Congress's addition of the phrase "under God" to the Pledge of Allegiance. Moreover, America is a nation "of the people, by the people, and for the people." The laws serve the people; the people do not serve the laws. On the matter of the pledge, the people have spoken clearly and resoundingly in disapproving the 9th Circuit's decision.
When it hears the case on appeal, the U.S. Supreme Court will again be faced with the difficulty of determining when a particular practice should be stricken down to uphold the Constitution's requirement of church-state separation versus when to validate a practice that expresses the religious dimension of the American public philosophy. While the 9th Circuit Court is to be commended for attempting to protect the consciences of young, impressionable schoolchildren who might be offended by having to recite the pledge, in this case the Supreme Court is likely to think that it makes little sense to obliterate one of the great traditions of American civil religion that so clearly expresses the fundamental values of the vast majority of Americans whom the court is also obligated to serve. But we the people pay a price for such decisions, whether we realize it or not.…