A Reason for Keeping ‘Under God’ in the Pledge

In 1954, George Docherty preached a sermon at New York Avenue church in Washington, D.C., and suggested that since morality is based on a Judeo-Christian foundation, the Pledge of Allegiance should include a reference to God. President Eisenhower was seated in the congregation and was moved by the sermon. As a result, Docherty’s sermon was influential in the movement to change the Pledge of Allegiance to include the phrase "under God."

So what has happened in the last 50 years that the Supreme Court would now question the constitutionality of that phrase — a question that would have been cultural heresy in Docherty’s era?

In short, significant shifts in the Protestant landscape. Docherty’s mainline Protestantism lost its political and economic hegemony because of three cultural shifts in particular: first, the hemorrhaging of Protestant church membership; second, the unseating of Protestant cultural power as a result of the immigration of Catholics, Jews, Muslims and adherents of Asian religion; and finally, the 1960s, which witnessed the breakup of the marriage between religion and culture.

For all of these reasons, “under God” is now under question. However, many who argue the phrase should stay in our Pledge of Allegiance are not offering persuasive reasons. One commentator has suggested that the phrase has the “comfort of custom”; another calls it “harmless fluff” and a “minor bit of ceremonial deism.” If these sentiments are not evidence of the disestablishment, indeed trivialization, of religion in modern life, I don’t know what is!

So should we keep the phrase or let it go? I have decidedly mixed feelings. On the one hand, if the phrase “under God” has been so trivialized, or worse, domesticated, to the point that it refers to a God who is co-opted for nationalistic purposes, then let it go! Be done with it!

On the other hand, there may be something recoverable in the phrase, so we omit it at our national peril. I wonder, for example, whether the phrase “under God” can represent a transcendent principle that calls into question the very tendency to nationalism, racism, sexism, classism and homophobia — the very tendency to co-opt religion towards these ends. The phrase could represent a transcendent check on the assumption of power by the few over the many or the many over the few, and call us as a nation to work for the common good.

This possibility reminds me that a few years ago I heard an expert on hunger from the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health say that if we had the will, we could solve the problem of world hunger. It was such a simple statement that I could not help but wonder whether the term “God,” as a reference to a transcendent being whose reality cannot be collapsed or contained by any one religion or national identity, could be a key to moving our collective “will.” Could not God, the transcendent being in all beings, direct and correct our tendencies to consume the world’s goods? Could not God, the one who points us to the mystery in all creation, call us to participation and interrelationship? Could not the term “God” refer to a transcendent One who counters our idolatrous tendency to say “There is not enough, I must have it all”? Moreover, is not God part of the American master narrative as we remember the first Thanksgiving, when the Pilgrims were invited to eat and drink with those who were different from them — a memory of our world citizenship and common participation in God’s good creation?

If the answer to these questions is “yes,” then I believe public use of the word “God” is to be commended. And if reference to God points us to a being who directs us in this way — who connects us and corrects us by countering all idolatries — then when we come to the phrase “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance, let us say it with gusto!

Posted Nov. 12, 2003


Roger J. Gench is pastor, New York Avenue church, Washington, D.C.

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