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First Parish Universalist Church
790 Washington Street, P. O. Box 284, Stoughton, Massachusetts 02072 
(781) 344-6800
Worship: 10:30 AM
Children's Chapel:  10:30 AM
Church School: 10:45 AM
 

Under God?

Rev. Jeffrey Symynkywicz, October 6, 2002

 

It is, no doubt, a sign of growing Pagan influence:

For generations, no doubt, countless American school children—scores, hundreds, thousands—who knows?—have beehn reciting, every morning perhaps, an oath of allegiance to a dark and despicable power. (Maybe they’ve been brainwashed; or maybe they have succumbed to subliminal and immoral messages from television or movies or rock and roll music or something like that.) How else can you explain the oath of allegiance that these countless school children have offered all these years? To wit:

“I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the republic Four Witches Stand, one nation…” and so on…

Or maybe it was the Republic of Forwidgetstan, somewhere out near Afghanistan or Kazakhstan or This-or-That-stan, out in Central Asia someplace…

When he was in elementary school, Frank Hall, who is minister of the Unitarian Universalist church in Westport, Connecticut, used to sit next to a big kid named Richard Sands—who was a big kid as I said, and the son of the town’s truant officer—which made him seem kind of important in the eyes of a third or fourth grader. So, every morning, during the Pledge of Allegiance, young Frank used to say: “I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the Republic for Richard Sands, one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”

Now that the courts have (supposedly) thrown “under God” out of the Pledge of Allegiance, newspaper columnist Frank Cerbino has offered a few suggestions for what might replace it. How about “one nation under appreciated” he suggests (after all, we could all identify with that in one of our whinier moods, right?). Or how about a simple statement of geography, like “one nation, under Canada”? Or maybe, in a more timely and Aschcroftian vein, “one nation, under surveillance”? (At least then, the cards would be out there on the table.)

A humor website, Satirewire, goes on and suggests corporate sponsorship for the Pledge of Allegiance. That seems to be the way so many things are going this day. (After all, the Boston Garden has become the “Fleet Center” and Great Woods became the “Tweeter Center” and Foxboro Stadium got rebuilt and became CMGI Field, which became Gillette Stadium, and in Rhode Island, the Providence Civic Center, where I spent many blessed out evenings as a young adult, has now become the “Dunkin Donuts Center [how very Rhode Island!].) Why not corporatize the Pledge of Allegiance, then? We could have slogans like: “One nation, 24,000 Starbucks, indivisible, with lattes and frapuccinos for all.” The people at Satirewire claim to quote McDonald’s CEO Jack Greenberg as saying:

“The phrase ‘under God’ clearly violates the First Amendment separation of church and state. However, there is nothing in the Constitution that separates chicken and state, and that’s why we’re proposing ‘One nation, six Chicken McNuggets and a medium Coke, all for $1.99.’”

And Satirewire quotes President Bush as saying: “Well, I’ll be! I always thought it said ‘One nation, we are God…’”

On June 19th of this year, the three judges of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in California ruled that the words “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance rendered the Pledge unconstitutional because it violated the separation of church and state.

The case had been brought by Michael Newdow of Sacramento, an avowed atheist, who argued that his second-grade daughter shouldn’t be forced to recite something which included the “G”-word. “Nobody should be forced to feel like an outsider,” Newdow said. The judges of the Ninth Circuit agreed. Compelling children to say “one nation under God,” wrote Judge Alfred Goodwin, was just as objectionable as forcing them to recite one nation under Jesus, Allah, Vishnu, Zeus, or even “one nation under no god”.

The official reaction, of course, was immediate and irate. “Ridiculous!” said President Bush. “Nuts!” said Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle. “Senseless!” said Senator Joe Lieberman. “Stupid!” said Minority Leader Trent Lott (always a man of such great eloquence). So much for reasoned discourse from our elected leaders. Hours after the ruling (it’s amazing how fast Congress can act when it wants to) the Senate passed a resolution (99 to 0) to defend “under God”. Judges who made such decisions, Senator Lott said, were “bad for America”; there was even, in some more extreme circles, talk of impeachment.

House Republican whip Tom DeLay said: “It is a sad that at a time when our country is coming together, this court is driving a wedge between us with their absurd ruling.”

Personally, I prefer the more reasoned reaction of the President of our Unitarian Universalist Association, William Sinkford. After the ruling, Dr. Sinkford said:

“America is becoming increasingly religiously pluralistic. For many, the language of God is an affirmatiom, but that language does not resonate with all Americans. The ruling… raises questions about what it means to be an American, to be patriotic. The question is not what metaphor we use for the holy; the question is what commitment we make to liberty and justice for all.”

It’s not our words and our posturing which make us great as a nation. It’s our actions.

Liberty and justice for all-- that was, certainly, the original purpose of the Pledge of Allegiance, which has a fascinating history of its own. (A history too often overlooked or ignored in the brouhaha following the Ninth District Court’s decision.)

The Pledge was written in Boston (of all places) in the large red brick office building on the corner of Columbus Avenue and Berkeley Street (that’s one of those little bits of trolley driver’s lore). The author was a Methodist minister named Francis Bellamy, who was one of the city’s leading proponents of Christian socialism. Rev. Bellamy was an outspoken advocate of economic justice and social activism—so much so that he was fired from his ministry at one of Boston’s Methodist churches. But in 1892, he’d found a job as a staff writer for The Youth’s Companion, a large-circulation periodical for young people.

He was also part of a national committee of educators and community leaders working on a suitable observance of the 400th anniversary of the first voyage of Christopher Columbus. It was to commemorate that occasion that the Pledge of Allegiance first appeared in the October 1892 issue of The Youth’s Companion.

In addition to celebrating Columbus, Bellamy would write years later, when the Pledge had acquired a life of its own and also had become a staple of school and civic gatherings across the country, that he also had the unity of the American nation so soon after the close of the Civil War (less than 30 years before) in mind. In its first publication, the Pledge had read:

“I pledge allegiance to my flag and the republic for which it stands: one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”

Bellamy (good socialist that he was) also said that he had also wanted to include the word “equality”—as in, “one nation, indivisible, with liberty, justice, and equality for all.” But the editors of the magazine thought that including “equality” might be too controversial; it sounded like it gave support to the efforts of women like Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton and others to get the vote for women (which was, indeed, Bellamy’s intent, at least in part). So, “equality” was dropped. A month after the original publication of the Pledge, the editors of The Youth Companion changed Bellamy’s words slightly as well. “My flag” became “the flag” and the word “to” was added before the words “the Republic”, so that the first line now read:

“I pledge allegiance to the flag and to the republic for which it stands…”

A few years later, early in the 20th Century, the words “of the United States of America” were added as a “clarification”, it was said, for newly arrived immigrants who might not know to which flag they were pledging allegiance.

Much to his chagrin, Rev. Bellamy’s private statement of the faith of the individual in the deeper principles of America had become a mass public oath, insuring loyalty of all citizens to the government of the United States. During the Second World War, the Pledge acquired legal standing when Congress included it as part of a code covering the country’s symbolic emblem.

After the initial changes had been made in them, Bellamy’s words were to remain unaltered for fifty years or so, until a larger, even more intrusive change was made in 1954. In that year, at the height of the McCarthy anti-Communist hysteria, prodded by lobbying from the staunchly anti-Communist, heavily-Catholic Knights of Columbus, as well as from the socially conservative Daughters of the American Revolution, President Eisenhower signed a bill adding those two little words—“under God”—to the Pledge of Allegiance.

In this way, proponents of the change argued, America would be differentiated from those “Godless Communists” in Russia and elsewhere, who were plotting our nation’s demise. It would also be a handy tool, they said, for “smoking out” Communists who would (supposedly) refuse to take a pledge which included mention of “God” in it. (Of course, this reasoning ignores one of the most fundamental political truths of our time, which is that, quite simply, that Commies lie and would happily say anything—including “under God”-- if it served their interests.)

So, in spite of the fact that generations of American young people—including some of you no doubt—had done just fine reciting a Pledge which included no reference to God; in spite of the fact that the American republic had survived just fine as, simply, “one nation, indivisible”—the words “under God” were added, unquestioned (it was supposed) until the ruling of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals this past summer.

It was around this same time, too—during the McCarthy period—that our national motto was officially changed, from “E pluribus unum” (“Out of many, one.”) to “In God we trust.”-- once again, to differentiate us, to divide us from those who “didn’t believe”. It’s interesting to note that in both of these cases, the Pledge and the motto, statements emphasizing American unity were, in fact, undermined by additions which sought to divide, separate, and differentiate. Adding a little history, rather than hysteria, to our national discussion of this issue might give our leaders a little more perspective.

Let me be clear: I’ve got no problem with God (I hope the reverse of that is true, too; I sure hope God has no problem with me.). I have no problem, personally, with references to God in my own utterances or those of others. I am, theologically, a theist, and reference to the diety is very much part of the perspective I bring to all matters in my life—religious and political. I would hope that my religious beliefs and sensibilities would inform my beliefs and (even more importantly) my actions as a citizen. The separation of church and state is one thing, and I believe an important aspect of our American way of life. But there shouldn’t be any separation between our religion and our politics, within each of us individually; not unless we want to be completely compartmentalized and schizophrenic about the world. As individuals, our political view and our religious view can (and should) inform each other.

In these difficult times, we as a nation need leaders who will truly bring us together to live out the ideals of this Republic—in action, not just in word. We don’t need more bravado and jingoism and nationalistic excess. Those immaturities of the spirit are things the American experience has suffered from far too often in the past.

If we are going to make it through this time of national trial and testing, we don’t need more numerous or more stringent loyalty oaths. We need larger minds. We need more open arms. And we need more creative and more engaged minds and imaginations.

We don’t need words; we need deeds.

We don’t need the trivialization of God and of religion through rote exercises which quickly grow meaningless to those who say them.

Truly being a nation “under God” isn’t just about saying the words or wrapping ourselves in the flag. It’s about remembering the words of the ancient prophets:

To loose the bonds of injustice,
To undo the thongs of the yoke.
To let the oppressed go free,
And to break the yoke…

This is what our Creator requires of us, first as individuals, then as a nation. To serve our brothers and sisters-- and to love mercy, and to do justly, and to walk humbly with our vision of that which is Holy, whatever name we give to the Holy.

To walk humbly with our God, and with our brothers and sisters of all nations around the world:

My country’s skies are bluer than the ocean
And sunlight beams on clover leaf and pine,
But other lands have sunlight, too, and clover,
And skies are everywhere as blue as mine.
This is my song, thou God of all the nations,
A song of peace, for their land and for mine.

May this be our heart’s prayer for this, our glorious Mother Earth, and for this, our “one nation, of glorious diversity” [Derrick Jackson] with liberty and justice--and all the hard work which that entails-- for all.

 


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