Friday, July 01, 2011

One Nation, under Whose God?

I was in third grade when the US Congress added the phrase “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance.  Our teacher drilled us on the new language until we could recite it en masse without stumbling or forgetting.  At eight or nine years of age most of us had no understanding of the political motives that had driven the change – the perception of threat from the USSR, the McCarthy hearings/witch hunt, the determination to distinguish our country as the exact opposite of the “godless Communists.”  It was one more thing that the adults decided that we had to learn, so we learned it. 
Except for the occasional grumble about having to relearn something we thought we already knew, I don’t recall hearing any discussion about the change, pro or con.  If the one Jewish girl in our class had any qualms, she didn’t express them.  The idea that there might be students who didn’t believe in any God at all never occurred to us.  Such a concept was beyond our realm of experience.  This is hardly surprising, since, as religion scholar Will Herberg has noted, in 1954 91% of the US population identified as either Protestant or Catholic, and 4% as Jewish.  That left just 5% in the category of other religions, or none.
The latest survey of US religious affiliation done by The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life shows the Christian-identified percentage, including Mormon, Orthodox, and Jehovah’s Witness, has dropped to 78.4%.  Self-identified Jews comprise 1.7% of the population, while 3% claim a wide range of other faiths, from Muslim and Buddhist to New Age and Native American.  Fully 16.1% of Americans say they are unaffiliated with any religion, while 0.8% reply that they don’t know, or refuse to answer the question.  It is not surprising, then, that in recent years there have been a number of efforts to remove the phrase “under God” from the Pledge.  While the legal arguments for this action have, for the most part, come from the non-religious population, members of various faith groups are also raising serious concerns.
One of the challenging questions in the discussion is, “Whose God is our nation supposed to be under?”  Who gets to decide what understanding of God predominates?  Even among the more-than-three-quarters of the population who name themselves Christian, the diversity of understandings is immense.  One need only consider a few of the hot-button cultural questions of the day, and the way in which God is invoked to support diametrically opposite positions, to recognize that there is little agreement among the followers of Christ.  Add to this the deeply held and widely divergent beliefs of followers of other religions, and the problems multiply.  How can the strict monotheism of the Muslim or Jew be reconciled with the pantheon of Hindu or Wiccan gods and goddesses?  Can the devout Fundamentalist Christian and the skeptical Agnostic both pledge their allegiance to a nation “under God” without regarding the other’s belief or lack thereof with suspicion and alarm?
A Christian believer might also ponder whether our nation’s policies and actions put the lie to the claim that we are “under God,” at least insofar as the God revealed by Jesus is concerned.  As we send our soldiers to engage in bloody wars of aggression and revenge, it is difficult to say that we are under the God whose son taught, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you.”  (Luke 6:27b)  Legislators intent on slashing funds from programs that provide food, shelter, and health care for the poor pay no heed to the God who will judge us by whether or not we feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and care for the sick.  (See Matthew 25:31-40)
Faithful Jews might join with their Christian sisters and brothers to question how our immigration policies and failure to regulate greedy corporations can possibly be under the God who instructed the prophet Ezekiel to proclaim, “The people of the land have practiced extortion and committed robbery; they have oppressed the poor and needy, and have extorted from the alien without redress. … Therefore I have poured out my indignation upon them…” (Ezekiel 22:29, 31a)
A peculiar counterpoint to the discussion is provided by the movement in a number of states to pass legislation forbidding the consideration of sharia (Muslim religious) law in US courts.  While on the one hand such legislation is nonsensical, in that it “solves” a problem that doesn’t exist, the very effort serves to put non-Christians on notice that their God is not included in the understanding of what “under God” means in the Pledge.  Probably the most comprehensive, and head-shakingly misguided, was Arizona HB 2582, which sought to prohibit not only sharia, but also canon law (primarily Roman Catholic), halakah (Jewish), and karma (which is not a legal system at all, but rather a “law” in the same way that the law of diminishing returns is a law – an observation of the way things work).  Fortunately this particular piece of over-reaching died in committee at the end of the legislative session.
Commentators have noted that, in our increasingly diverse country, the continuing recitation of “under God” works against the original intent of the Pledge, inserting a cause for division precisely where we once declared that we were “one nation, indivisible.”  A petition for the removal of the phrase is now pending before the Supreme Court.  Ideally, the American public would, in a generous spirit of respect for people of all beliefs, make the collective decision to return to the original language of the Pledge before being compelled to do so by a Court order.  Given the prevalence of voices of exclusivity and intolerance in our public discourse, however, I don’t see such a healing move happening any time soon.

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