author: Brad Spear
2 comments / tags: attitude
[This original for this was written in September 2002, a year after the tragedy of 11 September 2001. Events of the time prompted me to write about the mixing of church and state. This version is largely the same gist, but I have looked at it with a fresh eye.]
The collective wisdom of the founders of our country created a system of government that has helped to create the strongest nation of our time. A nation that is supposedly devoted to the ideal of equality and tolerance, in spite of the personal, sometimes intense, spiritual devotion of those same founders.
However, there are three very prominent examples of the breakdown between the separation of church and state are the changes that have been made to our nation’s coinage, to the national motto, and to the Pledge of Allegiance.
Early American coinage had no reference to a deity. The phrase In God We Trust was added to the two-cent coin in 1864, as the result of an act of Congress in April of that year. Subsequent to that time, the phrase was added to other coins as well as to bills (paper money).
The time in which the phrase was added was one of increased religious fervor, probably due in part to the American Civil War. Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase received many appeals to put some mention of God on the currency. The earliest appeal in the records of the Treasury Department (dated 1861) wished to “relieve us from the ignominy of heathenism.”
The National Motto
The original motto for the nation, suggested by Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and John Adams, was the simple phrase, E Pluribus Unum. This Latin phrase means “from many, one” and was a proper secular motto for a secular nation. Its purpose was to signify the collection of independent states into a common nation; a diverse collection of people from many different backgrounds and cultures. It implied and promoted no belief system beyond that.
During the anti-communist hysteria of the 1950s, this motto was changed to the same phrase as was on our coins, In God We Trust.
The Pledge of Allegiance
First, a short history of the Pledge is in order. (The politics of the people who are part of the pledge’s history can make for some interesting insights. A simple web search for the phrase “pledge of allegiance” will find a great many references, some of them should be factual.)
The pledge was written and published in 1892, and the author is generally accepted to be Francis Bellamy (1855-1931), at the time, a member of the editorial staff of a popular magazine called The Youth’s Companion. In the original form it read:
I pledge allegiance to my Flag and to the Republic for which it stands, one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.
This was altered in 1923, changing the flag reference to be more specific. It now read:
I pledge allegiance to the Flag of the United States of America and to the Republic for which it stands, one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.
In this form, it was officially recognized by Congress in 1942. However, in 1943 the Supreme Court ruled that public school students could not be forced to recite it. The Pledge was changed again in 1954 adding a reference to God. This modern form now reads:
I pledge allegiance to the Flag of the United States of America, and to the Republic for which it stands, one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.
A couple of things have long bothered me about the Pledge of Allegiance of the United States. (The need for a pledge at all is also troublesome, but I can see some reasons for it.)
- One is the phrase, “allegiance to the Flag of the United States of America.” I personally pledge my allegiance to the people (and by extension, and with some reservation, to the government) of this country, but I won’t pledge allegiance to the symbol. Why not just leave it at “to the Republic for which it stands”?
- The second, and far more significant issue is is the phrase “under God.” This is not an appropriate statement in the pledge of a secular state.
And that is the big issue — the one that has caused such an uproar in June 2002, when the 9th District Court of Appeals ruled that the Pledge was unconstitutional because of the phrase, “under God.”
The ruling was vilified by many. It was rather unexpected, if not surprising, just how much of an uproar this caused. Are these people afraid of the idea that non-Christians are part of this country, and always have been? Have they forgotten that the founders of the nation tried to make clear that religion and the state are distinct and must not be aligned in the make-up of each other in the foundation of a truly free state?
The people who are afraid of losing those two words, “under God,” also seem to forget that prior to 1954, there was no mention of God, nor was there a perceived need for one. Consider this along with the fact that the original author was a Baptist minister at one point in his life, and even he saw no need to mention God. It was the the Knights of Columbus who took advantage of the national paranoia in the early 1950’s against “godless communism” and persuaded Congress to add the phrase.
It is funny that the District Courts’ conclusion was called “political correctness.” Modern arguments against putting God in government are the same as they were two centuries ago: a nation built on the religious belief in a single God, is more likely to ignore the “rule of law” that maintains some measure of order and civility among all people, of any faith. After all, God’s law is a higher power than man-made laws. But then, who interprets God’s law?
Finally. . .
Many of the founders of the United States were personally opposed a completely secular state, and a few may have even wanted a Christian theocracy. There were constant battles over such things as oaths of office. Washington’s famous use of “So help me God” in his oath is one. Another is in an early draft of the oath for the House of Representatives, which was finalized in a more secular form.
Fortunately, while these are just examples of the flawed implementation of the separation of church and state, the collective wisdom has prevailed, at least for the most part.
It is disconcerting that so many people feel a need to wear their religion on their sleeve. As if their own faith were not enough, they need to be substantiated by others professing the same faith.
Does God really need to be supported by government? Does “the Truth” He represents not have the power to stand on its own within the people? In the words of Thomas Jefferson:
It is error alone that needs the support of government. Truth can stand by itself.
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