Far more than two simple words will be at stake when the United States Supreme Court hears arguments in Elk Grove Unified School District v. Michael Newdow on March 24 to consider whether “under God” should be removed from the Pledge of Allegiance.
To put this debate in proper context we must first recall that in this Republic, the pledge's recitation is a voluntary act of citizenship that no one can be compelled to utter against their conscience.
Public expressions concerning the importance of religion are as old as the Republic, and have historically been viewed as affirmations of faith that made America great. It has been understood from the beginnings of this nation that an essential part of religious liberty is the freedom for our citizens to individually and corporately acknowledge their faith in and dependence upon God. And there is nothing more American than to recognize our nation's dependence upon God -- and acknowledge that all of our laws and national acts are under His authority -- through the words of the Pledge.
From American history we know that “under God” captures the bedrock worldview of the founding fathers who made America. The view of religion held by the majority of the founders was profoundly exhibited in the life of General George Washington. When he received a copy of the Declaration of Independence from the Continental Congress, Washington ordered that “The Colonels or commanding officers of each regiment are directed to procure Chaplains accordingly; persons of good Characters and exemplary lives.”
What does the Declaration say about the founders’ worldview? God is the Creator and the source of liberty (“all men are endowed by their Creator with unalienable rights”), God is the law giver (“law of nature and of nature’s God”), God is the ultimate judge (“the Supreme Judge of the World”), and God is the king above all earthly rulers, the Sovereign (“Divine Providence”).
At his presidential inauguration, Washington took the oath of office with his hand on a Bible opened to Genesis 49 and 50, and added the words repeated by every president since, “So help me God.” He told his audience that, “It would be peculiarly improper to omit, in this first official act, my fervent supplications to that Almighty Being who rules over the universe, who presides in the councils of nations.”
It’s not hard to imagine President Washington being outraged at the attempt to remove “under God” from the pledge. He’d probably want to know why it took us until 1954 to add those vital words.
American traditions of expressing our founders' kind of faith have been under attack from the ACLU and its allies for decades. The legal (and public opinion) blitzkrieg has demolished all too many public expressions of faith: crosses, Ten Commandments monuments, nativity scenes, and even Christmas trees. Too many communities in the country can tell a story of an intimidating ACLU demand that a much-beloved expression or tradition be expunged from public life because of the so-called “separation of church and state.”
The ACLU's version of the “separation of church and state” cannot be allowed to continue long enough to become an American tradition itself. We can still repel the forces of secularism and their assault on our faith traditions and religious liberty. We can do that in part by remembering to pray that the Supreme Court votes with the side of the angels and keeps “under God” in the pledge.
On some deep level the majority of Americans understand the danger of erasing those words from the Pledge and the further precedent for chaos such a decision would create in the drive to eradicate our heritage. A recent poll found that 89 percent of Americans support keeping “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance. And a clear majority know there is no Constitutional violation here, despite what two judges on the Ninth Circuit -- or even five justices on the Supreme Court -- might say to the contrary.
People of Washington’s era -- those who wrote the First Amendment -- understood “establishment of religion” far differently than today's judges. For the founders, an establishment of religion meant, among other things, direct funding of salaries for clergy in the established churches – but not in others. Today an “establishment of religion” is grossly urged to be any, often even the most general, public expression of faith and history. By Washington’s testimony, we know today’s view is obdurately incorrect.
The view that argues for cutting “under God” from the pledge is so extreme it violates common sense. And where do we want our country to go with such a ruling? To join Europe in plunging headfirst into the secular abyss? Let us continue to pledge our allegiance to one nation under God. Or in the words of the Declaration: the Creator, the Lawgiver, the Supreme Judge of the World, and Divine Providence.
Alan Sears is president, CEO, and general counsel for the Alliance Defense Fund, America's largest public interest religious liberty legal alliance. He formerly served as Chief of the Criminal Section of a United States Attorneys' office for the Department of Justice, as Director of the United States Attorney General's Commission on Pornography, as an Associate Solicitor for the United States Department of Interior, and as a First Amendment litigation attorney.