Under God

In a reversal of its 2002 rejection of the Pledge of Allegiance, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco has just (March 11) ruled that the words “one nation under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance do not violate the Establishment Clause of the United States Constitution.

This is a step backward in the process of forging “a new and more perfect union” out of the creative diversity that makes up our nation’s population. It is an unnecessary and a gratuitous insult to the roughly one seventh of the nation that does not believe in God.

I take my allegiance to my country seriously. I am proud to be an American, I take pride when I display my US passport abroad, and I was proud to serve in my country’s diplomatic service, representing our interests in other countries, for an active career spanning three and a half decades. If I am expected to lie when I swear allegiance to my country it troubles me, even if my pledge is seen by all as a formality of little practical consequence.

Question: how would most Americans feel if the court had ruled that the pledge of allegiance were reworded to read “…one Godless nation…” You’ll certainly agree that there would have been a ruckus. The minority that does not believe in God would have been sticking it to the majority that did, and the act would have been ridiculed and instantly reversed. The situation would have been less severe with “…one secular nation…” which would in fact have been more accurate than either of the other alternatives, but still the religious right would have been up in arms.

At least by implication, the court’s action suggests that someone who believes in God is a more authentic citizen of this republic than I am, since I am a humanist who takes a more nuanced view. I find this an intolerable effort to narrow the definition of patriotism in ways that exclude many of us who stand, at least as firmly as the religious types, for the principles for which the republic was established.

But is the issue important enough to fuss about? How often am I asked to take the pledge anyway, and what are the consequences if I just shut up when I come to the offending passage? It’s all pretty trivial, isn’t it?

Yes, the issue is trivial in terms of its consequences, and I shall certainly learn to live with it. But the symbolism is important. The court action shows that a substantial number of Americans just don’t get it, when it comes to understanding the basic nature of our country and what makes it great. Our country is great because it allows people who come from all sorts of ethnic and religious and cultural backgrounds to cooperate in one society. Many of our difficulties as a nation come about when one or another group tries to stick it to a different group. When we suppress those efforts, when we rise above narrow loyalties to serve the larger loyalty to the whole nation, we prosper.

The court action shows that we aren’t out of the woods yet, when it comes to poking thy neighbor in the eye. I am saddened, and not just because my eye happens to be one of those being poked.

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