Magazine article The Christian Century

Hollow Pledge: The Problem with 'Under God'

Magazine article The Christian Century

Hollow Pledge: The Problem with 'Under God'

Article excerpt

THE SUPREME DOUBT'S June ruling on whether "under God" should be part of the Pledge of Allegiance passed with relatively little notice, since the case was rejected on procedural grounds. For those who paid attention to the arguments, however, it conclusively exposed the incompatibility of American civil religion with any kind of robust Christianity: If one considers Elk Grove Unified School s. Newdow theologically, with the conviction that God ultimately refers to the Creator-Redeemer met in Israel and Jesus Christ, then the "Cod" Americans are to pledge their nation to be "under" is at worst an idol and at best the true God's name taken in vain.

California atheist Michael Newdow originally went to court arguing that the daily recitation of the pledge in his daughter's public elementary school was an unconstitutional establishment of religion. In 2002, the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals agreed and found the pledge's inclusion of the God-phrase unconstitutional. The controversial ruling was appealed and accepted for review by the U.S. Supreme Court.

The court might then have faced head-on Newdow's argument that "under God" in the regular recitation of the pledge constituted an endorsement and establishment of religion. But a technical issue arose. Newdow and the girl's mother, Sandra Banning, had never married and are separated. Banning legally retains primaw custody over their daughter including the final say on her education. On that basis the court ruled that Newdow did not have legal status to bring the ease on his daughter's behalf.

Why should Christians consider the ease more closely? First, because the solicitor general who argued the case on behalf of the U.S. government, Theodore Olson, mounted a vigorous case for retaining the God-phrase. This was predictable, since Olson is an appointee of George W. Bush. Besides his awareness of the president's own personal and political support of "God" in the pledge, Olson could not have been insensitive to the over whelming support for the phrase among conservative evangelicals, one of Bush's most powerful and intensely supportive constituencies. We call rest assured, then, that Olson put forth as strong and "Christian-friendly" a ease as possible. Its theological assertions and implications are consequently quite significant.

The second reason Newdow deserves close attention is that, although the court did not officially rule on the pledge's inclusion of the God-phrase, some justices took it upon themselves to argue in favor of it anyway. Their opinions on the case reveal how, in the contemporary U.S., one might legally argue for some reference to "God in the Pledge of Allegiance. Like Olson, the justices had to make their arguments in light of U.S. legal history, past and present religious pluralism, and variegated religio-political support of the God phrase in the pledge. Accordingly, though they set no official precedents on the matter, their reasonings in response to Newdow are theologically telling.

Chief Justice William Rehnquist's opinion summarizes the basic attitude underlying the theologically germane aspects of' the government's argument and the court's response. Mindful of legal and constitutional precedents, Rehnquist knew that the God-phrase must be stripped of theological content to quality as an admissible declaration in a government-sanctioned pledge. He asserts bluntly that the pledge, with the God phrase, is not a "religious exercise." The pledge instead "is a declaration of belief in allegiance and loyalty to the United States flag and the Republic that it represents." As a "commendable patriotic exercise," the object of the pledge is to unify and otherwise promote the good of the nation.

It is not just that the pledge as a whole is something other than a "religious exercise"--no part of it, including the God-phrase, can he a religious exercise. Rehnquist writes, "The phrase 'under God' is in no sense a prayer, nor an endorsement of any religion . …

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