Religion 101

Recent blog posts have addressed some controversial matters arising from the intersection (some might say collision) between religion and our secular culture in general — and our secular public schools in particular. I’ve addressed common misconceptions and misinformation revolving around such heated issues as teaching creationism and posting the Ten Commandments in U.S. public schools, as well as the whole, much-misunderstood matter of school prayer.

One related issue that often comes up in virtually the same breath as the issue of school prayer is the daily morning recitation within our public schools of the Pledge of Allegiance. The sticky point here is, of course, the specifically religious part of the Pledge — the part that affirms “one nation under God.”

Just as with state-supported school prayer, the expectation that students recite a daily loyalty oath which contains a patently religious clause (even if students have the option to “opt out”) raises serious constitutional concerns in the minds of many students, parents, and other citizens. Many see such an expectation as a form of state-sanctioned religious coercion, and they do not wish to support any further erosion of Thomas Jefferson’s principled “wall of separation” between church and state.

It has sometimes been suggested that a simple fix for the problem might be to simply eliminate from the Pledge those two problematic words: “under God.” Such a suggestion is often met with great resistance, great objections, and even great animosity, to those who see such proposed tampering with the Pledge not only as some sort of dire affront to their own religious sensitivities, but even as somehow downright unpatriotic.

However, what many U.S. citizens seem unaware of is the fact that the phrase “under God” was not included within the Pledge of Allegiance as originally written. It was a much later addition.

The Pledge of Allegiance was written in by Francis Bellamy in 1892. It did not contain the words “under God.” That phrase was only added (by an act of Congress, slipping neatly in between “one nation” and “indivisible”) as late as 1954. This was at the height of the Cold War, and was seen by many as a political maneuver and a shot at the “godless communists” who were America’s enemies in that era.

Likewise, and for perhaps similar motives, another act of Congress in 1956 changed the official U.S. motto from “E Pluribus Unum” (Latin for “Out of Many, One”) to “In God We Trust.” It was first used on paper money only as late as 1957. Secularists ever since have expressed concerns about these creeping encroachments of such government-mandated religious affirmations.

The United States is a deeply religious society, with over 90% of its citizens professing a belief in God. However, the U.S. is also a secular republic, with a Constitution guaranteeing freedom of religion (which arguably also includes, for its non-religious populace, freedom from religion). Such a situation is bound to result in areas of disagreement regarding precisely where and how the lines are to be drawn between church and state, in a manner which protects each from the undue influence of the other.

However, at least with regard to the Pledge of Allegiance, it would seem that the suggestion referred to above would perhaps be the simplest solution to that particular area of disagreement. And in this particular case, simply deleting the divisive words “under God” would in no way be censoring the Pledge; rather, it would merely amount to restoring it to its original (and religiously uncontroversial) form.