'Under God' isn't the establishment of religion

Maggie Gallagher

3/14/2003 12:00:00 AM - Maggie Gallagher
Had it not been for an appeals court stay, almost 10 million American public school students in nine Western states ruled by the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals would have been forced to take a new oath this week: Stop pledging allegiance to this nation, under God.

The case is headed for the Supreme Court, where the most likely outcome is a muddled defense of ceremonial deism, or what Vikram Amar, a professor of law at the University of California's Hastings College of Law in San Francisco, called "a very narrow ruling on 'religion-lite' that says opaque references like this to religion that we've lived with for a long time do not violate the establishment clause." Meanwhile, critics charge that those pesky words "under God," which were added by Congress in 1954, are merely an outdated relic of the Cold War.

A red-white-and-blue cliche or a bit of leftover red-baiting? Are these really our only options?

Let me beg to differ. I think the words "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance express an extremely important point, both about our historical understanding of the source of our rights, and about the limits to the kind of loyalty oath that a government can demand.

Those who insist that any mention of God and government in the same breath constitutes the establishment of religion immediately run into the declaration paradox: Our founding national instrument holds: "that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights."

This was no slip of the Jeffersonian tongue. If there is one idea repeated over and over again in the founding of America (as M. Stanton Evans pointed out in his book The Theme Is Freedom), it is that no power on Earth can strip men of God-given rights. So Sam Adams and James Otis declared, "The right of freedom being the gift of God almighty, it is not in the power of man to alienate this gift." John Adams wrote, "Let us hear of the dignity of (man), and the noble ranks he holds among the works of God. ... Let it be known that British liberties are not the grant of princes and parliaments." John Jay: "We are ... entitled by the bounty of an indulgent Creator to freedom." Alexander Hamilton: "The sacred rights of mankind ... (are written) by the Hand of the Divinity Himself, and can never be erased or obscured by mortal power."

To say that we are a nation under God is to say, with the Declaration of Independence, that the rights we enjoy as Americans are not gifts of the state but of nature and nature's God.

Equally importantly, the words "under God" qualify what might otherwise be mistaken for a totalitarian demand upon the soul of the citizen. The republics of Greece and Rome were not founded on the inherent equality of all human beings. Far from it. For Aristotle, as for most of the classical world, what was self-evident was inequality and subjection: "Some men are by nature free, and others slaves, and that for these latter, slavery is both expedient and right. ... Neither must we suppose that any of the citizens belongs to himself, for they all belong to the state." Totalitarian states persecute religions because they recognize that religion competes for the loyalties of citizens. In our republic, by contrast, the claims of the state are made under God, who guarantees our rights.

Religious liberty is one of those rights. You are free to understand and worship Him however you choose. You are free to believe He does not exist and come up with alternate theories for why rights are unalienable. But you are not free to rewrite the history of how these rights came to be yours. That is what is at stake in the battle of the pledge.