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Adding “under God” to “one nation, indivisible” in the Pledge of Allegiance was an idea whose time had come (I remember it seemed like just correcting an oversight) in 1954, the same year that is usually held to be the birth year of rock ‘n’ roll. It passed with the support of an easy majority in Congress, an overwhelming majority of the American people and the president, who happened to be Eisenhower at the time. Public support is substantially the same for “under God” today as it was then, but that’s not enough.
Once again, a federal judge has ruled that the reciting of the “under God”-contaminated Pledge of Allegiance in public schools is unconstitutional. The same atheist, Michael Newdow, whose similar suit was rejected by the Supreme Court on procedural grounds last year brought this new action by recruiting other people’s children in place of his own. Now, a solitary California judge’s ruling may mean the Supreme Court will have to confront this issue head on.
Most Americans honor the phrase “under God” and want to keep it in the Pledge. The fact is it’s among our few instances of governmentally inscribed homage to the Almighty – which actually are very few. You can listen to the National Anthem at a thousand ball games and never risk hearing of God. After “In God We Trust” on our currency, we can count certain traditional ceremonial moments like “God save the United States and this Honorable Court” and certain inscriptions on marble and … that’s it!
“Their Creator” was in the Declaration of Independence, but our present government didn’t enact that; a previous arrangement of British colonists did. For our part, yes, our cherished First Amendment says Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof. But today’s righteous rebels against public religiosity always seem to leave out the second part.
A persistent gnat on the windshield of our national life like Michael Newdow distracts us from studying the more important things on the road ahead, but he seems to need his self-importance, so we do need to bother cleaning the windshield. There is so little chance that the Supreme Court will find legal or constitutional reason to prohibit the recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance that you should move away from this page now if you expect to find my defense of its constitutionality here.
But the Newdow case provokes increased pontificating from some of the self-anointed intellectual priesthood (which derives its very authority from daring to deem all things open to question) who now discredit the “backward” thinking of our parents’ and grandparents’ democracy back in 1954. Defense of its forward thinking is what you can expect to find here. Cleaning the windshield, if you please.
The Pledge of Allegiance serves simply as an occasional moment of common homage for Americans to share ceremonially in public life. It’s a moment that says, “We may not agree on much of anything else, but we agree on this core principle of allegiance to our beloved country.” And what the heck, if it’s against your personal creed to declare such allegiance, you’re still one of us if you just wait patiently for the recitation. We reject requiring anyone to take this pledge!
Why, then, is it so important to have “under God” in that pledge? Because “under God” is the key to the lock that any governing individual or insiders group may place on human rights or personal liberty! And no future generation of Americans should be put at risk of neglecting this recognition:
Ours is the only country in history that has said your personal rights come from God. They come to you directly from your Creator, and some of them get loaned to the government by consent of the governed.
Elsewhere in the world, power has gone to the government and governments have loaned power to the people. But distilled into our foundational documents is the Founding Fathers’ recognition that there is no ultimate governing authority but God, who created all men equal and endowed all with “certain unalienable rights.”
The Supreme Court is unlikely to decide in Newdow’s favor, but I’m not even arguing that it ought to enshrine “under God” in any permanent constitutional rendering. The legislative process is where each generation’s majority can determine changes in ceremonial writ if it should wish to. But there’s a core question that will always matter.
America will be at heart either one nation under God or one nation indifferent to God. Where will our highly evolved co-equal rights and powers as individuals come from if we keep God hidden in our public life? In their unending drive to do just that, the Michael Newdows of the world ultimately put human rights and personal liberty at increased risk.
Regardless of its theoretical ideology, any government in practice consists of policy being carried out through chains of command, with fewer individuals at the top than at the bottom. What else can such organization be than oligarchic? And what can prevent an oligarchy from sapping individuals’ rights, just as horribly as an old-fashioned monarchy, other than a universal reverence for “certain unalienable rights”?
Thus, “one nation, indivisible” is less likely than is “one nation under God, indivisible” to bother very much with “liberty and justice for all.”
We who’ve so loved to note that “rock ‘n’ roll is here to stay” should feel good if its birth year was the same one when “under God” was added in to the Pledge of Allegiance – not a bad year for significant new things and sound forward thinking! In the final analysis, more important than whether rock ‘n’ roll is here to stay, it will always matter big whether “under God” is.