The Presbyterian Pulpit
A sermon by the Rev. Dr. David E. Leininger

"ONE NATION, UNDER GOD"

Delivered 7/7/02
Text: Matthew 22:15-22
To read endnotes, click on the the note number, then click on the to return to your place in the text.

Did you see that Mark Twain quote in the paper the other day? Great line - "Sometimes I wonder whether the world is being run by smart people who are putting us on or by imbeciles who really mean it."(1) I thought it particularly apropos in light of last week's judicial decision. As the Associated Press put it, "Stunning politicians on both the left and right, a federal appeals court declared for the first time Wednesday that reciting the Pledge of Allegiance in public schools is unconstitutional." And this, the week before our first 4th of July since September 11th.

Within minutes a political firestorm was set off to rival anything that Colorado or Arizona has been experiencing. Members of the House of Representatives assembled on the steps of the Capitol to recite the Pledge in defiance - big time photo op. The US Senate voted unanimously to condemn the decision. President Bush called it "ridiculous." Across the nation there appeared editorials, letters to the editor, and even the occasional sermon decrying the action. The man who initiated the lawsuit, a 49-year-old lawyer and emergency-room doctor named Michael Newdow, was being cursed and vilified, threatened with bodily harm and worse, by sweet church people who on Sunday sing, "They'll know we are Christians by our love." Right! Over and over there were complaints that these hallowed words, handed down from generation to generation, were now being snatched from our babies' mouths by mean-spirited unbelievers who would deny our heritage as a "Christian nation."

For what it is worth, there are several errors reflected in those complaints. First those "hallowed words" have not been around all that long. The Pledge is only a little more than a hundred years old, written in 1892 for the celebration of the 400th anniversary of Columbus' discovery of America.

For that matter, the phrase that has caused all the controversy - "under God" - was not part of the original pledge anyway. It is unclear precisely where the idea originated, but one driving force was the Catholic fraternal society, the Knights of Columbus. In the early '50s, the Knights themselves adopted the reworded pledge for use in their own meetings, and members bombarded Congress with calls for the United States to do the same. Other civic and fraternal organizations joined in. After all, the Cold War was raging and Joe McCarthy was finding godless communists under every rock - we were NOT godless, so in 1953, the change was formally proposed to Congress.

The "under God" movement did not finally succeed, however, until the next year, when it was endorsed by the Rev. George Docherty, the pastor of the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in Washington where President Eisenhower attended. In February 1954, Docherty gave a sermon - with the president in the pew before him - arguing that as it currently stood, the pledge "could be the pledge of any country." He added, "I could hear little Moscovites [sic] repeat a similar pledge to their hammer-and-sickle flag with equal solemnity." Perhaps forgetting that "liberty and justice for all" was not the norm in Moscow in those days, Docherty (who was a Scotsman, by the way) urged the inclusion of "under God" in the pledge to denote what he felt was special about the United States.(2) And it was done. We who were in school at the time, had to relearn what we would repeat every morning. Remember?

As to this being a "Christian nation," we should set the record straight. Most of the founding fathers were deists or rationalists, not Christians. They or their ancestors had fled Europe to escape hundreds of bloody years of Christian oppression caused by both Catholics and Protestants. In fact, during the 1787 Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, a motion to open meetings with prayer was voted down - Benjamin Franklin noted that there were only two or three besides himself who favored the idea. In a diplomatic message to Malta, no less a personage than George Washington stated that, "The government of the United States is in no sense founded upon the Christian religion. The United States is not a Christian nation any more than it is a Jewish or Mohammedan nation."(3) There are hundreds of other quotes by the founders that can be documented in official, personal or public writings that make clear their intent was to have this nation a haven of religious liberty, and not identified with one religion or another. Case closed.

Now, back to the California case, which is FAR from closed. In a 32-page decision (which is on-line, if you are interested in wading through it(4)), the court held that it is an unconstitutional establishment of religion to require teachers to open every school day by leading students in a recitation of the Pledge which includes the questionable phrase. Students do not have to repeat the words anyway - that was held to be a violation of the First Amendment of the Constitution in 1943, eleven years prior to the act of Congress that inserted the reference to God! That Supreme Court said, "If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox or force citizens to confess by word or deed or act their faith therein." As a Presbyterian minister whose Confession of Faith insists that "God alone is Lord of the Conscience," I say Amen!

Keeping the sacred and secular separate has great precedent. Remember our lesson. The Pharisees and the Herodians, a strange partnership with only one thing in common - a big-time worry about the popularity of this new rabbi - come to Jesus and ask about the legitimacy of paying imperial taxes. It was a trap, as we all know, and as Jesus knew as well: force Jesus into a choice between alienating the crowds (who despised the heavy hand of Roman rule) or publicly proclaiming a treasonous point of view.

Jesus said, "Show me the coin used for paying the tax." They brought him a denarius, and he asked them, "Whose portrait is this? And whose inscription?"

"Caesar's," they replied.

Then he said to them, "Give to Caesar what is Caesar's, and to God what is God's."

Or to move that to July, 2002. "Give to the Flag what is the Flag's, and to God what is God's."

As Lance Morrow opined in this week's TIME magazine, "Don't try to nationalize the deity; it's a little cheap. The Almighty likes to work on a case-by-case basis anyway. I'm all for patriotism and all for religion. But they need to be watched. Sometimes patriotism becomes the next-to-last refuge of a scoundrel. And sometimes - as Osama bin Laden and certain pederast priests should have proved to us by now - religion becomes the last refuge."(5)

One of those editorials written in the wake of the Court decision came from Muskogee, Oklahoma, a quintessential "Bible belt" community. The editor commented that it surprised him that the congress had jumped so quickly to vote the court wrong. He thought it was too bad they could not have the same energy to get medical care for children, health care for the working poor, etc. Then he wondered how a country that provided so little for the care of its people equally could really call itself "under God."(6) Good point.

Do you really want to pledge your allegiance UNDER GOD? Then do it.
  • Pledge allegiance to this nation UNDER GOD as you support a political vision that reflects a concern for liberty and justice for all, not just a favored few.
  • Pledge allegiance to this community UNDER GOD as you generously share what you have with neighbors in need.
  • Pledge allegiance to your children UNDER GOD as you love them and care for them and enable them to be all they can be.
  • Pledge allegiance to your family UNDER GOD as you give them the priority in your life that they deserve.
  • Pledge allegiance to your church UNDER GOD as you commit yourself to faithful worship, a life-long program of learning, and an appropriate commitment of time, talent and treasure.
  • Finally, pledge allegiance to Jesus Christ as you come to him in faith with your promise of obedience and humble discipleship.
"One nation, under God..." Good words. Perhaps unconstitutional words if we force someone to say them whose conscience is bothered by them. OK. The freedom-loving nation to whom I pledge my allegiance would not do that. And neither would my God.

Happy 226th birthday, America, and many, many more.

Amen!


1. Warren Times Observer, 7/4/02, p. S-19

2. David Greenberg, "The Pledge of Allegiance: Why we're not one nation 'under God.'",

http://slate.msn.com/?id=2067499, June 28, 2002

3. From an Overland, KS editorial quoted by Bruce Green via Ecunet, "SERMONSHOP 2002 07 07," Note #18, 4/4/02

4. http://www.ca9.uscourts.gov/ca9/newopinions.nsf/ FE05EEE79C2A97B688256BE3007FEE32/$file/0016423.pdf?openelement

5. Lance Morrow, "God Knows What the Court Was Thinking," TIME, 7/8/02, p. 96

6. Posted by Ann Brizendine to Ecunet, "SERMONSHOP 2002 06 30," Note #68, 6/29/02

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