To the Flag II
Bill Long 7/6/05
A Reflection on the Culture Wars
One of the arresting points made by Professor Richard Ellis in his recently-released book on the history of the Pledge of Allegiance (To the Flag, 2005) is that the political (and religious) right has used the Pledge in the past decade or so as a means of stoking political partisanship and trying to discomfit Democrats and other more liberal Americans. A pledge/oath that celebrates the indivisibility of the American people is being used as a classic wedge document to further conservative causes.
The more I think about the issue, however, the more clear it is to me that the Pledge issue ought to work far more to the benefit of Democrats than Republicans. Democrats ought to join the issue aggressively against Republicans on two fronts: (1) the phrase "under God" is a clear endorsement of theism at the expense of atheism, polytheism and other non-Western forms of belief that are amply represented in the United States; and (2) the proponents of the Pledge in its present form should be forced to answer the question, "Whose God?" or "Which God?" when they say "under God." Each of these requires some comment.
Under God and non-Theists
The major Western Religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) are monotheistic. They propose the existence of one God (even though Jewish propagandists in the first century accused the early Christians of "di-theism") who is separate from and responsible for creation. That is, Western Religions are also dualistic. This God is to be honored and worshiped by His adherents. A pledge of allegiance to a God under whom a nation stands, in judgment and blessing, is a concept theologically consistent with these major traditions, even though some might argue that God is not compelled to organize his concepts according to contemporary political divisions (i.e., the modern nation state).
But the more prominent religious issue of the "under God" in the Pledge is that an increasingly large number of Americans are from religious traditions that are non-theistic. This is happening both because of immigration from Asia and because many Americans are finding that the Western religions of their youth aren't satisfying, and have adopted an Eastern religion--usually Buddhism--to help in meditation, intentional living and ethical action. Buddhism is the most widespread world religion (est. adherents--361,000,000) that denies existence of a god in the Western sense of that term. As the amicus brief on behalf of American Buddhists in the 2004 Newdow (Pledge of Allegiance) case before the US Supreme Court stated:
"For Buddhists, the concept of "God" interferes and clashes with this essential goal of their faith: To experience reality mindfully and with direct insight into the non-dualistic nature of existence, free of any thought of, fixation on, or prayer to "God," and "Almighty," a "creator," or any notion of a Supreme Being."
It would behoove opponents of the Pledge in its present form to describe in detail the "theistic" assumptions behind the Pledge. Many might say that the Pledge was only meant to indicate the religious beliefs of those who added these words in 1954, but if we want the Pledge to be a clarion call for patriotism in our generation, it must not exclude millions of Americans by the two-word phrase "under God." And, if some argue that these Buddhists, atheists, pantheists and others just have to learn to respect the majority tradition, the response would be that the Pledge is not a "respect" document--it is a "loyalty-oath"-type of affirmation which should not force people to feel unpatriotic because they cannot in comfort say it.
Whose God is in View, Anyway?
The more basic problem I have with the Pledge as it it now recited, an issue which I haven't seen discussed, is that when you say "Under God," you assume that everyone knows what that means. I have studied God for more than 30 years, and if there is any lesson that comes from that study it is not only that people have radically different views of God but that the views of God in different religious traditions are simply not compatible with each other. Thus, in order to bring the issue to a head, I would urge Democrats to ask Republicans and other flag-waving and Pledge-spouting individuals the question, "Which God is in view?"
Here is what I mean. The Pledge as it is now spoken assumes that the "God" who is mentioned is the same God in all people's minds. Some would be quite disturbed, I am sure, if a group of Pledge reciters would explain their words as follows: "I am an Orphic (a form of ancient Greek religion)...I believe the world came from a cosmic egg. God is basically the force behind the egg." Or, let us take something from our current reality. One of the fast-growing religious groups in America are the Mormons--Latter Day Saints. They are vigorous proselytizers, as most people know. The only reason they are so eager in proselytizing is because they believe that they uniquely have the final religious truth about God; that His final and definitive revelation came through a 19th century New Yorker named Joseph Smith. They have a different theolgy and Christology from mainline Protestants or Catholics. When an LDS Christian says "under God," and a Southern Baptist says "under God," are they referring to the same God? Of course not. One of them refers to a God who is the Father of the fully divine Jesus Christ and a member of the Trinity; one of them denies the Trinitarian nature of God.
Or, more to the point. Islam is a Western Religion, and therefore believes in One God. But, do you think that most "red-state" American Christians would eagerly affirm the following statement: "My God and the God of Shiite and Sunni Muslims is the same God"? As recently as 2001, Al Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Seminary in Louisville, KY said that Christans, Jews and Muslims don't worship the same God. Not only is he not unique in this belief, but if you study hard the basic documents of each of these religions, you would be hard pressed to say that they think they have the same God as each other. I would love to have Gallup or someone do a survey on who people think God is, and whether there is just "One God" out there, like the top of a mountain peak, towards which we are all climbing, or whether MY God is different from YOUR God. Provoking such a debate, however, would make the pledge-reciters split up into as many groups as there are denominations.
Because the Democrats have not been very forceful about dealing with religion in the public sphere--indeed, one might say they are rather paranoid about the issue, they have given the issue over to the Republicans. Following my two easy points, however, could turn the tables relatively quickly.
Copyright © 2004-2009 William R. Long