Pledging Allegiance

The American polity experienced a mass paroxysm last week when the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals held that the assertion, in the Pledge of Allegiance, that our nation is "under God" violates the First Amendment's prohibition against the establishment of religion. Vehement criticism from politicians, talk radio and the public at large reached such a fever pitch that the author of the court's opinion took the rare step of staying his own order pending the outcome of the appeal.

The court's apparent desire to seek a head on collision with American patriotic fervor during the War on Terror is remarkable. The Supreme Court ruled in 1943 (West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette, 319 US 624) that the First Amendment prohibited any state from compelling a child to recite the Pledge or punishing him for failing to do so. The 9th Circuit's case thus turned completely on the social pressure or opprobrium those who refuse to recite the Pledge experience if they refuse to do so. The court could simply have pointed out the absence of any legal compulsion or penalty, politely indicated that the courts are not in the business of counteracting peer pressure in the nation's schools but that is what parents are for, suggested that part of having convictions is actually having the courage of them, and dismissed the case. It seems, however, that the court was working hard to make a Statement. At that it succeeded beyond its wildest expectations.

The original Pledge was penned in 1892 by Francis Bellamy (1855–1931), a Baptist minister and Christian socialist. According to John Baer, who has authored a book on the Pledge and its history, in writing the Pledge, Bellamy sought to express the ideas of his first cousin, Edward Bellamy, author of the American socialist utopian novels, Looking Backward (1888) and Equality (1897), and admittedly, the Pledge does declare allegiance to an ideal, a republic for which the flag stands, which may or may not happen to exist at any given moment.

The original Pledge did not contain the words, "under God." According to Baer, Congress added them in 1954 after a lobbying campaign by the Knights of Columbus, who thought it important to distinguish ourselves from atheistic communists. In approving the legislation, President Eisenhower stated, “In this way we are reaffirming the transcendence of religious faith in America’s heritage and future; in this way we shall constantly strengthen those spiritual weapons which forever will be our country’s most powerful resource in peace and war.” Apparently, from the government's perspective, it is necessary to have a plenitude of powerful spiritual resources at the government's disposal for killing and otherwise combating the nation's enemies.

Be that as it may, the elision of the words, "under God," by the 9th Circuit should revive a religious issue that the use of those words somewhat hides. While it does not generally occur to anyone, reciting the Pledge is a violation of God's commandment to have no other gods before Him. A moment's thought should be sufficient to disclose that this injunction prohibits swearing any oath of fealty to a flag, republic, nation, government or, yes, even a constitution. Little thought seems to be given to this matter, it seems, because it is taken for granted that of course there is only one God, so who could have any other gods before Him? It is forgotten that it is a commandment precisely because man's natural condition is, and tendency is towards, paganism, and that it is a perpetual spiritual struggle to actually only have one god who really is God. If you doubt it, try this test: observe your behavior, and then ask yourself what it reveals about who — or what — your real god is.

If the import of the commandment is not clear enough, however, we also have Christ's words from the Sermon on the Mount advising us not to swear any oaths:

Again you have heard that it was said to the men of old, u2018You shall not swear falsely, but shall perform to the Lord what you have sworn.' But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. Let what you say be simply u2018Yes' or u2018No;' anything more than this comes from evil. [Matthew 5:33-37.]

And if that is not sufficient, we also have Christ's observation that "No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other." [Matthew 6: 24] As Kierkegaard has pointed out (in Judge For Yourselves!), Christ does not say, no one should serve two masters, but no one can serve two masters, i.e., that it is impossible for a man to serve two masters. Thus, anyone who thinks he can serve two masters deceives himself, for in whatever he does, in reality he is only serving one master.

Whatever the merit, in 1954, of assisting in the fight against godless Communism, the addition of the words, "under God," arguably removes this doctrinal objection to pledging fealty to a symbol of the nation with a claim that the nation is, of course, "under," that is, subordinate to, God. Of course, saying it doesn't make it so, but it is always pleasant to flatter ourselves, and at least we differ from godless Communists in our pretensions and ideals (or do I repeat myself?). In short, the words do not really address the religious issue, but only provide a colorable exemption from religious injunctions with a self-serving statement that appeases or flatters the religious conscience.

The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals decision ought, therefore, revive a religious predicament that in truth has never disappeared. A practicing member of Jewish or Christian faiths who endeavors to abide by God's commandment that He alone is God and we are not to have any other gods before Him should consider revisiting the issue, because the escape clause that gives a nod to God in the process of swearing undying fealty to an idol of man is, supposedly, required to be dropped.

Meanwhile, legally speaking, the upshot of the Circuit Court's opinion is this: it is unconstitutional to pledge allegiance to a nation that seeks and holds itself to be "under God." Since, as elided, the Pledge is unconditional, it is constitutional for one to declare allegiance to a nation supreme unto itself. Perhaps this seems like rather straightforward modern statist doctrine to the 9th Circuit majority. Unfortunately, not only did the court forget President Eisenhower's observation that the government needs subjects who have powerful spiritual resources that it can exploit in order to triumph over the nation's many enemies, but also forgot that we subjects find it difficult to take this doctrine unadorned: we need our pretensions.

July 4, 2002