"Under God"–Or Not?


In a post called “Parsing the Pledge”, Phaedrus argues that that the phrase “under god” which is currently being challenged in the Supreme Court is obviously unConstitutional, what he calls “a slam dunk.”

The “under God” part of the Pledge of Allegiance is not merely unconstitutional, it is stunningly obvious that this is so. It’s an open and shut case, a slam dunk, shootin’ lunkers in a teacup. It’s been really amusing to hear the majority of both Democrats and Republicans argue that it’s not only no way in hell unconstitutional, but also that this is self-evident any sane person. Yet their arguments pretty much amount to “because we don’t want it to be, that’s why.”

I haven’t heard all the arguments Phaedrus is referring to so I’ll reserve judgment on the accuracy of that statement, but he does refer to Solicitor General Ted Olsen’s defense (from the NYT):

Solicitor General Olson told the justices that the appeals court misunderstood the pledge. The phrase “under God” did not place the pledge in the category of religious expressions that the Supreme Court has found unconstitutional, he said, for example “state-sponsored prayers, religious rituals or ceremonies, or the requirement of teaching or not teaching a religious doctrine.”Rather, Mr. Olson said, “under God” was one of various “civic and ceremonial acknowledgments of the indisputable historical fact that caused the framers of our Constitution and the signers of the Declaration of Independence to say that they had the right to revolt and start a new country.” He said the framers believed “that God gave them the right to declare their independence when the king has not been living up to the unalienable principles given to them by God.”

Phaedrus responds, “See? They ain’t a thing r’ligious ’bout it. Ya know, ‘cept for the God part an’ all. Does language mean anything to Repukelicans?”

But Olson is quite right. If you doubt it, read the Declaration. Jefferson and the other Framers considered that the rights of human beings derived from God.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. –That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed…. (emphasis added)

That is perhaps the clearest statement ever written of the intent behind both the Revolution and the Constitution itself. Basically it says that the rights of human beings are given by god and no mortal agency, not government or church or law or mighty army has the right to remove them, and that the entire purpose of governments is to protect and defend those rights on Earth. That statement is what makes this country different from every other: its fundamental belief that government ultimately belongs to the people it governs, not the people to the govt as it was in the rest of the world. In its day it was a revolutionary concept in every sense of the word, and it shook the Western world. No country had tried it since Ancient Greece, and only once since had it been put into operation on a fairly large scale (something over a tribe or a few small tribes)–the laws of the Iriquois Confederation.

In other words, If the Pledge is unConstitutional with “under god” in it, then so is the Declaration of Independence, and the underpinnings of the Philosophy that justified the Revolution, brought about the creation of the United States as a political entity apart from Britain, and mandated the Constitution itself are destroyed.

Many of the Framers were Deists, including a majority of the most influential of them–Franklin, Adams, Washington, Madison, Paine, and of course Jefferson. They were a strange combination of students of Hume and children of Rousseau. They believed that there was a single god–a “deity”–that didn’t belong to any one religion but to all religions, and that couldn’t be defined except as “Nature”. They were roughly aligned with the Christian church of the time, but it was very rough–Jefferson once said that Jesus was “the first and best deistic moral teacher”–and much of mainstream Christianity considered the Deists a radical splinter group, what we would probably call a cult. The god in which they believed was amorphous and undefinable; it couldn’t be categorized or collated or catalogued, and it certainly couldn’t be owned by any sect or limited by any set of rituals or belief structures proselytized by a single dogma. It expressed itself, they believed (with Rousseau and Voltaire), most consummately in Nature, and to a very important degree Nature was god to them. In short, they probably would have been right at home with the concept of Gaia.

“Under god” in the Pledge must be taken to mean their god, the Deist god, the god from whom our rights flow, not as a gift but as part of our nature, as much a part as our limbs, our eyes, our voices or our minds–the god of the Declaration. You don’t have to believe in that god–or any god–because that is your right, too, as a human being. But the men who wrote the Constitution did, and that is the “god” that’s in the Pledge. A god that tolerant, I don’t have a problem with.

Having said that, I see no particular reason that it should be in the Pledge. If you are pledging allegiance to the country, then you are pledging allegiance to the law on which it’s based, and if you are doing that, then you are pledging allegiance to the Constitution. A belief in god–any god–isn’t necessary and maybe it shouldn’t be required. But Phaedrus, my friend, it is NOT a “slam dunk”. There’s a legitimate reason for those words to be there. It may not be the reason intended when the words were inserted in 1954, but it exists nonetheless, and it should not be ignored. Those words are a recognition of the reason the people who risked their lives and property took those risks. It is a recognition of the forces and convictions that created us and without which we wouldn’t exist. Our National Pledge of Allegiance seems like a good place to honor that recognition, and whether or not we share the Founders’ belief in Deism is irrelevant. We honor their belief and the courage it gave them, not our own. How can mentioning the belief that required a Constitution so that everyone’s beliefs could be protected be unConstitutional?

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