Jerry Wilson's Over Coffee

Jerry Wilson
Over Coffee
Appearing each Wednesday in the Edinburgh Courier, the weekly newspaper in Edinburgh, Indiana and periodically in Indiana's Daily Journal newspaper.

Should God be Banished from the Pledge?

July 2, 2002

God has been kicked out of the Pledge of Allegiance by a federal appeals court, if only temporarily. That ruling might be surprising, but it is not as hard to understand as how Congress managed to put God there in the first place, given the First Amendment.

Back in the early days of this country, and in the time before, it was customary for all official documents to refer to God in some way.

The Magna Carta, a petition to King John of England in 1215 and generally considered to be the touchstone of liberty, had five references to God. The Mayflower Compact of 1620 had four references to God, as did the Declaration of Independence in 1776.

And in nearly all the official proclamations handed down by governors of the Colonies and by their pilgrim predecessors, God was mentioned or alluded to.

But there is one glaring exception to this rule: the Constitution of the United States contains no references to God, the Creator, the Almighty, Providence - none at all. And it is on this document that we, as a nation, base our laws. It is this document that grants us the power to be a nation.

We celebrate the birthday of America on July 4, because it was on that date in 1776 that the Declaration of Independence was signed. But life in this country went on as usual on July 5 of that year. Nothing happened when that document was signed, except that the King of England got ticked off at us and proceeded to start a war. We were united in that war, but we were united as colonies because our independence, though proclaimed, was not yet secured, either in battle or by agreement of the King of England.

Eleven years after the “shot heard ‘round the world” the United States were not that united. And yes, “were” is the proper verb as it was used at the time. The country was a confederation of individual states, each one with absolute power over its own destiny. But in 1787, in Pennsylvania, a group of delegates that we now affectionately call the Founding Fathers united our country under one set of laws — the Constitution. It was only after it was ratified that our nation was truly born.

It is important that the Constitution, the supreme law of the land, omits any reference to God. For it is in the First Amendment to that document that we find the reason. “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

Notice that it doesn’t just say that Congress will not establish a state religion, but will pass no law respecting such an establishment. Replace the word “respecting” with loosely synonymous terms such as “permitting,” “condoning,” or even “allowing” and you have a proscription against the official recognition or preference of one religion over another.

Using our Constitution as a guide, indeed the only guide applicable to the interpretation of our laws, one must come to the conclusion that the federal appeals court in California was right when it ruled that the Pledge of Allegiance violates the separation of church and state because it contains the phrase “under God.” However, the ruling is also very much anachronistic, and therefore, probably won’t stand.

The use of the word “God” in the Pledge, on our currency, and in many of the oaths of office used to swear in elected officials has been so widespread for so long, that it has become secularized. It is no longer really about religion, but about constancy and tradition.

It is analogous to the use of the term “Xerox” in the 1970s to describe any photocopied document. The Xerox Corporation launched a massive advertising campaign to discourage such generic use of its trademark, for fear that if it came into common usage, it would be declared a regular word and the company would lose its rights to the term.

If the court of appeals had made its ruling in 1954, shortly after Congress added the phrase “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance, the decision may have stood, despite the fact that patriotism was running high back then. But after 48 years, it is too late to make such a change.

The appeals court ruling was out of time and out of place, and it most likely will not stand additional judicial review. God will remain where Congress put Him in 1954, firmly entrenched in the Pledge of Allegiance.


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