Celebrating "Under God" Whether There is a God or Not

The Ninth Circuit did a good thing by upholding the propriety of reciting the words "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance. And before everyone starts screaming, let me explain both why I make that claim and why the upside for those who value religious freedom is actually far greater than immediately presumed.

My conclusion is NOT based on the fact that there is a God, even though I believe that to be true. Nor is it based on a lack of concern for the atheists, agnostics, polytheists, pagans or any other students who may be uncomfortable saying those two words and equally uncomfortable having to opt out of saying them.

In fact, my concern for those students is the source of any hesitation I have about my conclusion. But in the end, the needs of those relatively few students are outweighed by the public good served when we preserve the 1954 revision of the Pledge which includes the words "under God".

Without creating what Tocqueville called a "tyranny of the majority", I think we can recognize the broadly religious views central to many of our nation's founders and of the fact that an overwhelming percentage of Americans today continue to affirm their belief in some higher power. And that is what the words "under God" affirm.

In the words of the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, the daily schoolroom recitation is not a prayer, but "a recognition of our founders' political philosophy that a power greater than the government gives the people their inalienable rights. Thus, the pledge is an endorsement of our form of government, not of religion or any particular sect."

In fact, were we not to preserve the words "under God," we would foster a tyranny of the minority. And although that tyranny may be born of sensitivity to a minority, it is an unacceptable tyranny all the same.

Additionally, the court's understanding of the use of "under God" offers an approach to the "establishment clause" which would help end the ugly legal warfare between totalitarian religionists and fanatical secularists. Instead of reinforcing the notion that either the very mention of God in school is constitutionally forbidden, or that mentioning God entitles schools to endorse any kind of religion, the court opened the door to mentioning God as a linguistic device which reflects the most commonly held political beliefs and aspirations of most Americans. Why should we find that problematic?

Finally, to describe our nation, with all of its diversity, as being unified "under God" is a perfect response to those who are most certain about who God is and what it means to be in relationship with Him, Her or It. Imagine the impact upon those who function with that kind of theological certainty when confronted daily by people of every possible world view, all of them pledging to the reality of standing, as one, "under God."

Used that way, there is no Christian God, no Jewish God, no Muslim God, etc. There need not be any God at all for one to meaningfully speak of God in that way. In effect, reciting the Pledge this way serves as a profound public education project whose end result would be to break down many of the ugliest forms of religious bigotry and spiritual hubris which threaten our public culture.

For this last reason alone, we should welcome the Ninth Circuit's decision. Those most delighted by it may get more than what they bargained for. But hey, that's how we know that God, whether real or imagined, has a wicked sense of humor and wonderful sense of irony. Thank you, Ninth Circuit.