The USA Under God

(July 2, 2002)

 

The 9th. District Federal Circuit Court decision barring the use of the words "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance will no doubt be quickly overturned. But political brouhaha that has erupted over this decision will continue to provoke further challenges over the role of religion in public life as well it might.

I remember my own personal discomfort when the Lord's Prayer was recited along with the Pledge of Allegiance in public junior high in Connecticut in what I had always been told was the "Protestant" version ("for Thine is the power and the glory..." etc.) In my ignorance I felt somehow disloyal to my Catholic roots, not realizing that this ending came from the Eastern Catholic/Orthodox liturgies (and was mistaken for part of the original Greek New Testament biblical text by the reformers). Even today, even after this Greek liturgical ending has been added to the post‑Vatican II Latin rite Mass, those childhood memories of thinking of myself as the odd person out are still with me! So I can very well understand some people's discomfort at the public mention of God.

But on the other hand, do we excise every reference to the creator or ultimate source of being that appears in our national heritage including the Declaration of Independence just because some people feel uncomfortable? If so, it would be hard to figure out where to stop.

However, it seems to me that by the terms "God" or "Creator", our founders were attempting to scrupulously avoid endorsing any particular religion. Whatever their original denominational affiliations, they were, at least in their public philosophy, what one might call "natural law deists". This view, roughly paralleling the philosophy of the Masonic Order, saw the Creator as the Grand Architect of the universe, the guarantor of individual freedom and equal rights before the Law. It is also a view that, however vaguely, reflects the biblical affirmation that not just humanity, but that individual human beings, are created in the image and likeness of God. All this is a quasi-religious belief that would be hard to justify from any scientific point of view.

One could argue, of course, that the majority of people in the United States no longer hold (if they ever did) such a philosophically neuter view of the deity. But this would be to miss the point. The idea was to skirt the issue of various religious and sectarian ideas and to find a common ground or foundation on which to erect the great American experiment. To begin systematically undercutting that foundation could, if history is any sure indicator, a good way of causing the whole structure to fall down.