With a subject like the Pledge of Allegiance, there are so many related issues that it can be difficult to choose just one issue in particular to consider for political and social implications. The Pledge attempts to influence matters of citizenship, political symbolism, national identity, religion and individual conscience, just to name a few. Given this depth of meaning, it is surprising that so many politicians and commentators have chosen not to seriously engage any of these substantive issues. Rather, most have decided to enthusiastically pursue a course of attacks against the many different cultural minorities that consist of individuals whose personal ideals do not include an allegiance to monotheistic religion.
The simple request of the non-monotheist cultural minorities that they be able to send their children to government-run schools supported by their own taxes without promising to support the religious concept that the United States exists and is operated "under God" has been denied ever since the Pledge of Allegiance was revised in 1954, under the cloud of the anti-communist panic led by Joseph McCarthy. Now that a federal court has recognized that it is unconstitutional to require all children, regardless of their religious or non-religious backgrounds, to swear fealty to the subordination of their secular nation under "God", fundamentalist Christians have begun a campaign to deny non-Christians the right to equal representation in and access to governmental services. George W. Bush himself has pledged to appoint judges only if they have a personal belief in the theocratic principle that all American government has a divine origin. With the Bush administration occupying the White House, only people who share George W.'s religious beliefs need apply for federal judicial positions.
With all of their fury about the federal court finding, conservative Christians forgot to address the most basic issue of all: Is their favorite phrase in the Pledge of Allegiance even true? Is the United States really "one nation under God?"
Conveniently, recent behavior by conservative Christian preachers provides a clear answer: the American nation is not united under God. Heck, not even Christians are united under God, as it turns out.
Divided We Stand
You'll remember, of course, the way that the American nation seemed to pull together after the tragic attacks of September 11, 2001. One of the most popular slogans after the attacks was "United We Stand", and a lot of people really felt that Americans had united, in spite of their differences. Why, just twelve days after the attacks, on a television show hosted by Oprah Winfrey, religious leaders representing a variety of different Christian sects as well as Jews, Muslims, Sikhs and Hindus came together for a "Prayer for America". If that's not a sign of being "one nation under God", I don't know what is!
Well, I guess I don't know what is. You see, it turns out that the religious groups represented by those leaders weren't as united as we were led to believe. One of the religious leaders brought together by Oprah Winfrey to mourn for the victims of the September 11 attacks was Reverend David Benke, a district president of the Lutheran Church's Missouri Synod. He joined in the "Prayer for America" event because he thought that it was important for Americans to join together in response to the recent tragic events, in spite of religious differences. His superiors in the Lutheran Church disagree. They've suspended Benke from his position in the church for participating in the event.
Explaining the punishment of Reverend Benke, Reverend Wallace Shulz, the Missouri Synod's national second vice president, wrote, "By President Benke's joining with other pagan clerics in an interfaith service [no matter what the intent might have been], a crystal clear signal was given to others at the event and to thousands more watching by C-Span. The signal was: While there may be differences as to how people worship or pray, in the end, all religions pray to the same God... To participate with pagans in an interfaith service and, additionally, to give the impression that there might be more than one God, is an extremely serious offense against the God of the Bible... I appeal to you, President Benke, please make a sincere apology to our Lord, to all members of The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, and to all Christians who are part of Christ's Body. Joining in prayer with pagan clerics in Yankee Stadium was an offense both to God and to all Christians."
An accusation such as this sounds more medieval than something that would come out of present-day America, because many Americans like to pretend that in the United States, different religions and different sects within religions can all agree about belief in God, even if they differ about how God ought to be worshipped. The action of the Lutheran church shows that this idea of underlying religious unity is a sham. The fact is that the Lutheran Church, one of the largest denominations in the United States, believes that its God is completely different from the Gods worshipped by other religions, and for that matter, from the Gods worshippped by other Christian sects.
The Lutheran Church has accused David Benke of engaging in both "syncretism" and "unionism". In the Lutheran theocracy, "syncretism" refers to the mixing of Christian beliefs with the beliefs of non-Christian religions. "Unionism" on the other hand, is the practice of combining Lutheran religious practice with the religious practice of other Christian sects. Benke is accused of these two crimes by the Lutheran Church just for the simple act of praying in the presence of leaders of other religious groups, as if they had the right to be perceived as equals. The main idea, of course, is that the Lutheran Church believes that their religion is true and right, whereas other religions, and even other Christian theologies are false and fallen.
In the height of irony, many Lutheran leaders have been loudly outspoken in favor of keeping the Pledge of Allegiance as a requirement for all public school students, across the country. Countless Lutheran reverends have declared that it is essential for the Pledge of Allegiance to include the words, "one nation under God". What does this really mean?
The implications are clear: when the Lutheran Church supports the inclusion of the words "one nation under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance, they understand implicitly that the God referred to in the pledge is the God of the Lutheran Church. Thus, the Lutheran Church regards the presence of the words "one nation under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance as a tool for the promotion of their particular sectarian beliefs about God.
One Nation, Divided By Belief in a Whole Bunch of Different Gods, Goddesses, Spirits and Spooks
The obvious reality is that there is not and never has been any such thing as an American "nation under God". Not only have there always been Americans who don't believe in the idea of a single, monotheistic God, but American Christians have always disagreed (sometimes violently) over what God is and whether all Christians really believe in God. Then, of course, there have always been many American non-Christian religious groups that believe in many gods or goddesses. Heck, there are plenty of Americans, including some Native Americans who were here far before the ancestors of Jerry Falwell, who don't believe in gods at all but do believe in a world of spiritual beings. Other Americans, such as many Buddhists, practice religion but do not believe in gods or spirits at all.
Of course, many of these different religious groups have mighty ambitions to convert all other Americans to their form of belief. Popular groups like the Southern Baptists condemn other religious groups for having different beliefs, for not having what they regard as the correct concept of God.
The idea of the United States being "one nation under God" is ludicrous, and it always has been. We would do well to remember that the words "under God" were only added to the Pledge of Allegiance in 1954 after a campaign by the Knights of Columbus to stamp out what the organization regarded as dangerous religious dissent by Americans. The phrase "one nation under God" is nothing more than attempt to cover up the rich religious (and non-religious) diversity that has been present within the United States ever since its birth.
It is no accident that the very first amendment to the Constitution of the United States of America specifically prevents the establishment of religion by the government. The people who wrote and ratified the Constitution were well aware of the wars of cultural genocide that had been waged in Europe, church against church, with every Christian group insisting that only it knew what God really was. They knew that religious wars had often been started by the insistence of a despotic monarch that the inhabitants of the lands they ruled swear allegiance to one God and not to another.
It's a pity that so many Americans have forgotten the lessons of history that our nation's first leaders knew so well. It's a shame that so many Americans feel that they cannot tolerate the existence of people who do not agree with their particular religious beliefs. It's absurd that so many Americans want to use the power of government to enforce an oath of allegiance to God when they can't even agree about what God is.
Given that our nation was founded upon the ideal of the separation of Church and State, I'm tempted to say that such religious bigotry is unpatriotic. Unfortunately, hatred of religious differences goes an awful lot deeper than issues of loyalty to the idea of a Fatherland (yes, that's the root meaning of the concept of patriotism). The zeal for forcing small children to recite a pledge to one particular deity to the exclusion of all others is just plain ugly, and unbecoming a nation which says that it values freedom.
The plain fact is that no particular sect of Christianity or any other religion enjoys majority status in the United States. Establishing an official governmental endorsement of God forces representatives of the government to start defending particular ideas about what God is and is not. It's a slippery slope from there to the enforcement of an official religion, when in fact the personal conscience of individual Americans runs in a blizzard of conflicting paths.
We Americans must learn to appreciate the religious diversity we currently possess, or we are likely to lose it. If we must pledge our allegiance to something, why not pledge allegiance to the ideal of one nation under the Constitution, which allows us to believe or disbelieve in any version of God, Allah, Krishna, Shiva, Buddha, the Goddess, the Great Spirit, or any other kind of supernatural being we choose.
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