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Why Fight About the Pledge of Allegiance?

05/19/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Yesterday, in an Op-ed in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Victor Bernard, who is affiliated with the Center for Inquiry, wrote a thoughtful and impassioned challenge to the recent Ninth Circuit decision upholding the words "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance. Bernard was particularly critical of the court for saying that the Pledge is not a "prayer" and then refusing to take the religious content of the words seriously. Under God is not innocuous. Bernard is right that something very religious and very important is asserted by the phrase "under God". But I think he is wrong that the supernatural creator-God of the Bible, in whom neither he nor I believe, exhausts the meaning of God.

The problem of God-language in the public square is much deeper than the Pledge or the national motto, In God We Trust. For if by some miracle, atheists could convince a judge to rewrite both, state legislators would just start posting the Declaration of Independence in schools and courthouses: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights... ." If Bernard feels himself to be a second class citizen because of the Pledge of Allegiance, how much more so in the face of America's founding document, in which Abraham Lincoln himself found the fullest expression of what it means to be an American. No judge will ever take down the Declaration of Independence.

But does the Declaration, and by extension God-language in general in the public square, really render Bernard and me political outsiders? That depends on what the words mean. The Declaration was basically written by Thomas Jefferson, the same Jefferson from whom we receive the image of the "wall of separation between Church and State." We may assume that the Declaration of Independence was not about the existence of God.

The issue between the colonists and the Crown was about the existence of rights. The colonists asserted that their rights were natural. These rights were not gifts from the King or from Parliament. Therefore, to deprive them of their rights was a fundamental injustice.

Undoubtedly some, perhaps most, of the colonists believed that rights could only be real if the God of the Bible endorsed them. But it is likely that others of the colonists found the expression "their Creator" merely a helpful formulation to distinguish rights given by Nature from rights founded merely in positive law. That may have been the case for Jefferson himself.

The commitment to natural rights serves to link the Declaration of Independence to the text of the Constitution. Bernard points out that the Constitution omits the word God, that it is a secular document. That is true. But the Constitution is also a document of natural law. That is why the Ninth Amendment speaks of "other[]" rights "retained by the people". These are the very same natural rights with which we are endowed in the Declaration of Independence by the Creator.

The link between natural rights and God-language is one of long standing. Two hundred years after our founding, the American sociologist Robert Bellah wrote that references to God on public occasions express the endorsement of natural rights, that "the will of the people is not itself the criterion of right and wrong. There is a higher criterion in terms of which this will can be judged; it is possible that the people may be wrong." Bellah was not writing about the constitutionality of such God-language. He was just describing its meaning.

Even the addition of the words "under God" to the Pledge of Allegiance in 1954, though plainly intended to endorse the God of the Bible in the face of godless Communism, also partook of this natural law tradition. For the dispute in the world between liberal democracy and Communism was not primarily theological, about the existence of God, but political. Communism disparaged the commitment to natural rights as a bourgeois construct. No rights were superior and prior to the will of the Party. The words "under God" also expressed a liberal democratic response to that assertion.

I would not encourage atheists to pretend that there is a meaning to God-language that is just a fantasy. But the connection of the concept of God to truth, goodness and beauty, indeed to absolute value itself, has been a secular tradition for as long as there has been an American secularism. John Dewey, George Santayana, Mordecai Kaplan all spoke of God in a nonsupernatural sense. And many other thinkers have done the same throughout the 20th century.

If we must fight about meaning and identity, by all means let us do so. But if symbols are sufficiently rich to express many truths, then let us come together as a community without unnecessary rancor. If the word God means only the endorsement of a Judeo-Christian tradition, then it is unconstitutional and we must continually so assert. But if, instead, the word God, though of course always including that dogmatic meaning, can mean a great deal else besides, then I think we have a responsibility not to seek conflict, but rather social harmony.