A federal judge in San Francisco declared the reciting of the Pledge of Allegiance in public schools unconstitutional Wednesday, a decision that could potentially put the divisive issue back before the U.S. Supreme Court. According to a Chicago Tribune report, U.S. District Judge Lawrence Karlton ruled that the pledge's reference to one nation "under God" violates school children's right to be "free from a coercive requirement to affirm God."
This will undoubtedly drive many Christians to action, arguing that the first amendment to the U.S. Constitution is a prohibition on Congress alone and is not a restriction on what individual school districts may or may not do with regard to religion. They will, of course, be right in that assessment. But there is a much larger issue here that will be largely overlooked, and it is this: should we even have a pledge of allegiance?
The English author G.K. Chesterton once observed, “America is the only nation in the world that is founded on a creed, one set forth with dogmatic and even theological lucidity in the Declaration of Independence.” By contrast, other nations were founded based on a shared ethnicity or geographical region. But America was founded on ideals. So much so that Chesterton called us a nation with the soul of a church.
Those ideals were articulated by Thomas Jefferson, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain, inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
American patriotism has always been about a devotion to these ideals not a devotion to a particular geographic region, an ethnic group, or the state. Those types of devotions are better described as nationalism and it is in nationalism that the Pledge of Allegiance has its beginnings.
Francis Bellamy (pictured above) was a Baptist preacher in the late 1800s and early 1900s. He was highly influenced by the socialist movements of his day. So much so that his church asked him to leave as pastor because he preached sermons on the virtues of socialism rather than expositions of Scripture. He authored the Pledge of Allegiance (his original handwritten version appears at right) as a way to foster blind obedience to the state. This was important to him because he viewed the state as superior to the individual, the individual as the servant of the state rather than the other way around. This stands in stark contrast to the American foundation of adherence to principle. The pledge swears allegiance to a government.
Thomas Jefferson once said that it might be necessary for patriots to revolt every 20 years or so in order to insure continued liberty. His allegiance was not to any form of government (not even the constitutional form he was so instrumental in forming), but rather to the foundational principles of life and liberty. To him a government was nothing more than a tool for protecting those precious principles.
And now, after years of pledging allegiance, the line between patriotism and nationalism has become so blurred as to be almost nonexistent. Anyone who questions the actions of the state is labeled “unpatriotic.” Even more egregious, Christians have come to regard this new “patriotism” and their faith in Christ as intertwined. Being a good Christian has become just one aspect of being a “patriot” and pledging allegiance to the flag, at the very least, brings with it an implied acceptance of anything the state does. After all, we’ve sworn allegiance to that state. It is known as civil religion.
What is civil religion? An article entitled “One Cheer for Civil Religion” found in the Sept./Oct. issue of Modern Reformation magazine answers that question quite well.
According to historian (and Christian) Wilfred McClay, civil religion is “that strain of American piety that bestows many of the elements of religious sentiment and faith upon the political and social institutions of the United States.” More problematically, civil religion is the misidentification of the nation of the United States with the covenant people of God. It is the casual assumption that America enjoys a special role in redemptive history. It is the confusion of the office of the political leader with the office of the spiritual leader. It is the frequent presumption of divine blessings without submission to divine judgment. It is the sublimation of Christian distinctives to a generic amalgam that conflates many faiths into a common national identity. It is as old as America itself. And it is not biblical Christianity.
How far down the road of civil religion has the church in America traveled? It’s a question worth asking, because the central motivation for any Christian should be God’s glory alone. If God were glorified with the utter destruction of the United States is that something that we would welcome as divine providence or reject and demand, “God bless America.” How we answer that question will reveal to us where our true allegiance lies, whether we openly pledge it or not.
To read more about the history of the Pledge of Allegiance click here, here, or here.