One Nation Under God

Scripture Readings: Deuteronomy 6:20-25, Mk. 12:13-17

In 1620 aboard the Mayflower, John Winthrop told the colonists longing to reach the shores of the New World: "We have entered into a covenant with God for this work." Near the end of the next century, at the time of the founding of the United States of America a less pious man, Benjamin Franklin, proposed that the seal of the nation should bear an impression of the waters of the Red Sea submerging the armies of Pharaoh. Like Winthrop, Franklin saw America in the light of the Israelite story, which Christians read in the Old Testament. This new nation was to be free of the tyranny that marked the nations of the Old World.

Thus, the first amendment of the Constitution prohibits the federal government from establishing a religion, and the 14th amendment later applied the same standard to the States. Certainly, of the fundamental freedoms in this country, the "free exercise of religion" protected by the first amendment is among the most cherished.

By the time of the revolutionary struggle for independence, religious freedom was seen as God’s will. When the Civil War threatened to destroy the nation, President Abraham Lincoln argued that preserving the Union was not only necessary to protect fundamental freedoms, but was also the will of God. Almost a century later, a Presbyterian minister, Rev. George M. Docherty, decided that the vision of one nation "under God" shared by founders and Presidents like Lincoln should be part of the Pledge of Allegiance, which was adopted in 1942.

On February 7, 1954, which was Lincoln Sunday, in a sermon preached at the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in Washington, DC, Rev. Docherty proposed adding the words "under God" to the Pledge of Allegiance. President Eisenhower was in church that day, so the sermon received national news coverage. Five months later the revised Pledge was being recited in Congress.

In his autobiography, George Docherty notes that some of his Jewish and atheist friends feared the consequences of this change, but his rebuttal then was that the first amendment protected the citizen’s right to be religious or not religious. Docherty argued that citizens were pledging "allegiance not to God, but to a flag." And Docherty saw the phrase "under God" as simply describing "the historic fact that the nation was founded by men who held a profound belief in divine providence."

Events, however, were to give a different meaning to the Pledge of Allegiance. With hindsight, Docherty later wrote: "I still consider my reasoning to be valid, but the times should have overruled my philosophical arguments as irrelevant in light of the greater issues at hand. A false patriotism was being aroused by the bogus threat of Communist encroachment; McCarthyism darkened the airwaves; superpatriots asked not whether they were on God’s side, but whether God was on theirs. As such, the new Pledge unfortunately served as one more prop supporting the civil religion that characterized the institutional Christianity of the fifties." (I’ve Seen the Day, p. 160)

In our time the Pledge is being challenged and affirmed once again. Should we give our allegiance to "one nation under God?" Or, should we support those who urge that the phrase "under God" be removed from our nation’s Pledge?

The Hebrew scriptures read by Christians as the Old Testament have been used to justify the idea of "a nation under God.” Yet, if scripture is read literally, the chosen nation is Israel, not America. For two thousand years Jews have kept this hope alive in their prayers, and a half century ago Israel was reborn. Now, the Israeli government defies international law in order to wage war, with American support, against the Palestinian communities that harbor terrorists who attack Israelis. At the same time, on land occupied by Israel since the war of 1967, the government supports the building of settlements, because this land is seen as part of "the nation" of Israel created by God, so the scriptures say, more than three thousand years ago.

Meanwhile, in America as in the fifties, fear of our enemies is fostering a "civil religion" that claims fundamental freedoms must be denied for the sake of national security. Men deemed dangerous to American security are being held without bail or charges being filed against them. They are being denied the due process of law required by our constitution, and also the safeguards mandated by international law for prisoners of war. 

Certainly, much of the outrage prompted by a court challenge claiming that the Pledge of Allegiance is unconstitutional is as harmless as the intentions of Rev. Docherty in 1953, when he proposed adding the words "under God" to the Pledge. There is nothing inherently wrong with people loving their country and believing it is part of God’s plan for the world. But even as the Pledge of Allegiance was used in the fifties to justify setting aside the legal procedures that protect our fundamental freedoms, we are endangered today by overzealous patriots.

As Christians, we need to be reminded that the church began in an era when the Roman Empire claimed the divine right to rule. Christians were among the victims of that time of arrogance and over-reaching, and this is why the New Testament does not look for God's will to be achieved through the reign of any nation on earth. Instead, the New Testament proclaims that the kingdom of God is "at hand" despite the tyranny of earthly rule, and that the reign of God will be consummated at the end of history in a kingdom not of this world. (John 18:36) The New Testament warns Christians not to identify the kingdom of God with any nation on earth.

As American Christians, we have good reasons for believing that our nation is not only blessed, but has a heritage of freedom and government through law that is far more consistent with the teaching of scripture than many other countries of the world. Yet, much of what we see so favorably, as Americans, looks hypocritical to people living in other countries.

America defends fundamental freedoms and demands that governments enforce human rights, yet America has not ratified most of the international human rights treaties and refuses to support the international criminal court. America demands that the Palestinian government be democratic, yet America supports many governments that are clearly not democratic (including most of the "friendly" Arab governments). America pushes for free trade and the lowering of trade barriers, yet America has raised government subsidies on US farm products that allow them to be sold at lower prices and to compete unfairly with the agricultural products of poor countries. America demands that corruption be stamped out in countries receiving US aid, yet America has been reluctant to acknowledge and root out corrupt corporate practices at home.

The debate about the Pledge of Allegiance is unimportant, if it only concerns whether or not the Pledge contains the phrase "under God." As long as anyone who does not believe in God is free to refrain from saying the Pledge, having the phrase "under God" in the Pledge does not violate the prohibition in the first amendment that protects us from an established religion.

The real issue raised by this controversy is the meaning given to the phrase "under God." Will we, and other Americans, take to heart the meaning that this phrase had for Lincoln, who saw the Civil War as God’s judgment on America? Will we understand the sympathy among many Muslims for terrorist acts against America, as a judgment on our failure to live up to our American and Christian ideals? Will all of us, who talk about living "under God," take to heart the responsibilities, as well as the joys and the blessings, that come with this faith?

Whether or not we pledge our allegiance to one nation "under God," our allegiance to our nation should be "under" our allegiance to God. If God is God, then our country is "under God," whether we say so or not. If God is just, then America is called to be just. If God is forgiving, then Americans are called to be forgiving. If God is our God, then we are called to be faithful. © Robert Traer 2016