Sunday, July 6, 2014

In Defense of “Under God" - Religious Freedom, Theocracy, and Me

Yes, this is me saying the Pledge. I don't know what my brother's doing.
"'What Better Work For One Who Loves Freedom Than the Job of Watchman. Law Is The Servant of Freedom. Freedom Without Limits Is Just A Word,' said Dorfl ponderously.
"'Y'know...if it doesn't work out, you could always get a job making fortune cookies.'"
~Terry Pratchett, Feet of Clay

I've always taken the Pledge of Allegiance very seriously. Perhaps it was the deep strain of solemn Phariseeism in me, but when other children mumbled and rolled their eyes through the pledge, I would slap my hand to my heart and tearfully proclaim my earnestness for Americanism and all it entailed.

I remember once, hearing a fellow pledger replace "liberty and justice for all" with a surreptitious "liberty and justice for most." How dare he? I fumed mentally. That's so disrespectful! If you're going to give your word, you should really mean it. There's some irony there, because his nicety should have force me to realize that all the time I had said the pledge, it had never occurred to me to ask that most relevant of questions: do I believe it?

And I wasn't sure.

After my initial idealism, I lived in a twilight limbo of disillusionment about our government, society, and culture. I didn't love America or most of the things she was currently doing. If she ever stood for liberty, she did so less and less each day. Justice? Justice, indeed, "for most."

But I could love America as an idea, if not a reality. On the other hand, how much of my conscience was I pledging to a flag? Even if I pledged to an ideal rather than a government, I recognized the wording did not distinguish between the two. And what if the concrete America began to ask me to do things I thought very wrong? What exactly had I sworn? If taking an oath meant something (as it does), I was in perilous waters. At church, at patriotic events, I would catch myself, hand halfway to my heart, uncertain of what I was doing.

And then I remembered "Under God." Quite simply, if the Pledge of Allegiance did not include the phrase, I would refuse to say it. This is not because I believe we are a Christian nation (I don’t really think we ever were, because nations cannot be saved or unsaved). It’s not even because I find it a nice note of humility in a somewhat hubristic pledge (though I do.)

No. “Under God,” to me, is most importantly an escape clause.

This is why I find the campaign to remove the phrase...worrying, at least. In recent years, many have said that “separation of church and State” means that any reference to religion should be scrubbed from all applications of the state, and that a statesman’s conscience should remain a private affair (this latter I find not only ludicrous but impossible, but that's a subject for another day). The irony of this is that were the phrase “Under God” removed from the pledge, these protesters establish that which they despise: a theocracy.

Watching the film A Man for All Seasons a few months back clarified this belief—not only was a major theme the infringement of freedom by totalitarian government spurred by the tyranny of individual opinion, but the plot hinges around whether the main character, Sir Thomas More, will or will not take an oath to his king.

Henry VIII wants More to admit that he, as king, has the authority to divorce his first wife—to do so, he must set himself up as the new head of the church, therefore creating, in effect, a hybrid theocratic monarchy. Eventually, More is caught up in a complex legal battle, meticulously keeping his opinions within the protection of England’s religious freedom laws. (The first clause of the Magna Carta promised: "Ecclesia Anglicana Libera Sit"...the Church of England shall be free.)

G.K. Chesterton correctly asserted that for More, the problem was not so much the concept of divorce, as the establishment of the divine right of kings—which Henry claimed for himself. Thomas More would not render unto Caesar what was not Caesar’s: that which belonged to God: his principles.

This conflict makes More just as relevant today, for Chesterton also pointed out that the divine right of kings has not disappeared, but merely restyled itself as "the Divine Right of Dictators." Governments (now in the name of philanthropy, rather than the birth of an heir) demand more and more sway over individuals’ personal lives, and have begun to intrude into their faith as well. Thankfully, as is demonstrated in the recent decision in Burwell vs. Hobby Lobby, they still err on the side of freedom, but it's a close thing. Most liberals have been up in arms, quick to define so-called "reproductive rights" as more important than corporate religious rights. (On the other hand, this idea of fairness may backfire.)

I know Christians have a reputation as suffering somewhat from a persecution complex. I know, too, that what we face here is not persecution on the same level as that of those overseas, much less Sir Thomas More in the 1500s. But we do face the harshest persecutions modern, conciliatory Americans are capable of: disapproval by mob. Popular opinion is against us.

So what? It was against Jesus. To some extent it has always been against us, for Christianity will always be offensive to someone. But Jesus, like us, had protection from the mob: the law. In his case, the law was ignored because Pilate was afraid of the mob, but it gave him the protection of one night’s frantic delay, as it gave More several years. Now, Pilate is on the mob’s side, chucking out laws with the just intentions of doing good, or "getting on the right side of history," whatever the heck that means

I'm aware, that at times, we Christians have been the mob (in fact, as a protestant, I would've been one of More's oppressors), but this only strengthens my point. Religious freedom laws are the last barrier sheltering minorities from public disapproval, because opinion will eventually influence a government to become more intrusive. Robert Bork writes (in a wonderful article on More's ideology)"When moral consensus fades...we turn to law; when law falters, as it must when morality is no longer widely shared, society and culture teeter on the brink of chaos."

And when the laws are gone, what if popular opinion morphs into a real mob—pitchforks included? What if there was a sudden swing to the other side, and you became the minority? At this moment, you’re quite ready to chase down your chosen enemy, but it just as easily allows him to get after you.

More: What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil? 
Roper: I’d cut down every law in England to do that! 
More: Oh? And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned round on you—where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country’s planted thick with laws from coast to coast—man’s laws, not God’s—and if you cut them down—and you’re just the man to do it—d’you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I’d give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety’s sake.

But, you say, don't Christians want a theocracy? Don't they want to legislate theology? Of course, some do, but most do not. I don't. Jesus didn't—his kingdom was "not of this world." Thomas More definitely didn't—he found God far too "subtle" for that. In the play, when challenged that he sets man's laws above God’s, he replied:

More: No, far below; but let me draw your attention to a fact—I'm not God. The currents and eddies of right and wrong, which you find such plain sailing, I can’t navigate. I’m no voyager. But in the thickets of the law, oh, there I’m a forester. I doubt if there’s a man alive who could follow me there, thank God…
Yet they did. 479 years ago today, July 6, 2014, Thomas More was beheaded because he wouldn't sign a document affirming the king as new Head of the Church. For this to happen, the law had to be broken, which it was, through perjured testimony.

This returns me to "Under God." More's favorite daughter Meg signed the oath, and being a woman, was allowed the caveat "as far as it would stand with the law of God." This denied the monarch the divine right of dictators to legislate morality. If "Under God" were removed, then the oath would reference only one ultimate authority: the State. The State would be God. Theocracy, anybody? (The fact that the Pledge isn't a legal document is important, but irrelevant to me - words mean things.)

Yes, I understand the arguments for granting government god-like authority. I agree entirely that intolerance, racism, and other popular sins, are in fact sins, but these things are so "subtle," that they should be left outside man's law. After all, if tides change (and don't they just?), subtle laws lead down a quick path to Salem. That which is Caesar's is a specific category.

The State did not own men so entirely, even when it could send them to the stake, as it sometimes does now where it can send them to the elementary school....There were limits to Caesar; and there was liberty with God. 
~G.K. Chesterton

As for the Pledge of Allegiance, I'm not too worried, yet. It's still legal to refuse to say it at all. But I join my young self in believing it should be taken seriously. It's an oath. 

More: When a man takes an oath, Meg, he's holding his own self in his own hands. Like water. (He cups his hands) And if he opens his fingers then—he needn't hope to find himself again.

Words matter. The Pledge of Allegiance is worth taking seriously. It's all that stands between us and the Devil.
Therefore, my Lord, I do not think my self bound to conform my Conscience to the Counsel of one Kingdom, against the general Consent of all Christendom. 
~Sir Thomas More, during his trial
I die the King's good servant, and God's first. 
~His last words


Footnote, after my atheist buddy Tim's comment on Facebook: 
Don't take this argument more broadly than I mean it. I'm really writing from a personal standpoint, and this is more than anything an explanation of why I, as a Christian and an individual, won't say the pledge without that caveat. The phrase was added to the pledge in 1954, during the Cold War (a fact I couldn't find space for in the article). I wouldn't have said it before that point. Frankly, even with this "escape clause" I'm not tremendously comfortable with it. "Indivisible" bothers me a bit. But in this case the relevant point is that the Pledge does not require unconditional obedience to the State. "Under God" could be replaced with "under private conscience"  or whatever (though you've got to admit, it doesn't have the same ring)...but merely removing it is not a good compromise. So, those are my thoughts.


  1. I thought I had commented on this already--I guess my thoughts (comments) were so loud in my brain I had assumed I had already put them down. Like thinking so loud you think you're talking, but you're not. A really interesting experience, if a very amusing one for those around you, expecting a reply, etc. I agree wholeheartedly that I think many don't really understand the connotations of pledging, or the weight of the oath--and I don't think people really think about the importance of understanding the nature of it all. And while the strength of Christianity throughout American history is clearly evident and was part of what made it what it is, I definitely wouldn't call it an officially Christian one either--I thought that was a bit unnecessary, when it was made official. But I can see from both points of view, those who think that with a Christian majority (and its history) America should be stated as Christian, but at the same time, it's the land of the free--free religion, free speech, etc. But still. You could go in circles on that topic with some people, I'm sure.

    1. Yeah...I think I agree. For me it's an ultimatum - either include the phrase, or abolish the pledge. I'd be more comfortable with the latter.


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