In September 1892, Baptist minister Francis Bellamy wrote the Pledge of Allegiance. It read “I pledge allegiance to my flag, and the Republic for which is stands, one nation indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” The pledge underwent some transformation in 1923, and was officially recognized as America’s pledge in 1942. In 1954, Congress, under pressure by various activist groups, including the Knights of Columbus, an all-male Catholic organization, added the words “under God” to the pledge. In response to the addition, President Eisenhower stated, “In this way, we are reaffirming the transcendence of religious faith in America’s heritage.”
There is much debate in this country over the constitutionality of the use of the word “God” in our pledge. Many people feel the use of the word “God” in this context is clearly a violation of the First Amendment, which states in part, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
Michael Newdow sued the public school his daughter attended, claiming the pledge was a violation of her civil liberties. The case was heard by the Supreme Court, but thrown out on a technicality. Following the case in June 2004, Supreme Court Justices Rehnquist, O’Connor and Thomas stated they believed the reference to God in the pledge is constitutional.
The response from the Supreme Court on the constitutionality of name-dropping God in the pledge was to say that the word “God” didn’t convey a religious connotation. Justice Stephen Breyer stated, “God is so generic in this context as to be neutral.” Solicitor General Theodore Olsen stated, “The Pledge is not a religious invocation (and) not a prayer.”
Notice that the move made by the justices was not to say that it is acceptable to have a religious term in the pledge, but to say that the term was not religious at all. They said this because there is a clear violation of the First Amendment if in fact we accept “God” as a religious term.
Though I would agree the pledge is not equivalent to a prayer, the point is moot, as the Supreme Court Justices are wrong in their analysis of the use of “God” in the pledge. Keeping “God” in the pledge does harm to people of all religious backgrounds, and to atheists, as well.
If the courts are to claim that the definition of God is a neutral term, at the very least, the courts should come up with a definition of God both secularists and spiritualists can agree on. The only way to accomplish this would be to redefine “God” as a belief with which there is no spiritual connotation. To do otherwise would be to remove the word’s neutrality. But certainly, “God” is a religious term. Simply because the word “God” is common in our everyday lives does not mean it is a secular or even a social term. On this point, I believe both atheists and theists agree. Suggesting God is a secular idea removes from God what it means for him (or her) to be God — specifically, God’s spiritual nature.
Claiming God is not a spiritual term by redefining it as such seems to be a dishonest way to allow what most people consider a very religious idea into the pledge. Just because we claim the word “God” has no religious connotation, does not make it so. Additionally, claiming the word “God” is neutral does not mean the word should necessarily be in the pledge.
Upon inspection, claiming the word “God” is a neutral term should be more uncomfortable for a theist than an atheist. If the courts passed a ruling saying “God” is a term with no religious connotation, they would be extending their power by transforming what most people recognize as a religious idea into a secular one. This seems to be a clear case of a violation of the theist’s First Amendment right. Certainly, the process of changing the definition of the word “God” to no longer violate the rights of some is unacceptable if, in the process, we violate the rights of others.
Once we abandon the idea of “God” as being a neutral phrase, the other arguments supporting keeping the word “God” in the pledge fail.
There may be an appeal to use the democratic process by claiming the issue of “God” in the pledge is one to be voted on. However, the United States government is set up so that the majority cannot undermine the basic rights of minority interests, regardless of a majority’s consent to its being there.
Additionally, those in favor of keeping “God” in the pledge may want to appeal to the tradition of the use of the word “God” in the pledge. This argument fails, too, as appealing to tradition does not escape the problem of a violation of one’s First Amendment rights.
Lastly, there is often a claim that bringing to the Supreme Court the issue of the unconstitutionality of God in the pledge is too cost prohibitive to pursue. However, suggesting that the acceptability of a violation on an individual’s right is commensurable to monetary loss is offensive. It is the job of the Supreme Court to enforce the constitutionality of federal laws. In essence, we have already allocated the funds. Those whose civil rights are being violated ought to be able to ask the courts to do their job.
If the Supreme Court embraces arguments based solely on majority rule, and appeals to tradition, or monetary loss, these arguments run the risk of bleeding into other areas of our federal laws. All people, regardless of religious beliefs, may suffer if a precedent is set of allowing the Supreme Court the freedom to perpetuate a violation of their rights.
Jes Bohn is a senior philosophy major and is president of the Student Philosophy Society.