Is pledge's 'under God' symbolic or religion?
The last time Carlo Dicicco of Fargo said the Pledge of Allegiance, his lips stopped moving when the crowd recited the phrase "under God." A veteran of World War II, Dicicco believes the words no longer belong in the pledge. "We're so diverse in ...
The last time Carlo Dicicco of Fargo said the Pledge of Allegiance, his lips stopped moving when the crowd recited the phrase "under God."
A veteran of World War II, Dicicco believes the words no longer belong in the pledge. "We're so diverse in this country," he says. "It denigrates religions that don't believe in the Judeo-Christian God."
Next week the U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments in a case that asks whether the First Amendment is violated when public school teachers lead students in a patriotic pledge that includes religious language.
The nation's highest court ruled in 1943 that school children can't be forced to say the Pledge of Allegiance. But the court has yet to weigh in whether the words "under God," which were added in 1954, are unconstitutional.
The hearing has come about because Michael Newdow, who is an atheist, filed a suit against a Sacramento, Calif.-area school district where his daughter attends elementary school. He argued her rights were violated by hearing the pledge with the words "under God."
Last year the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals stayed enforcement of its earlier decision that said the pledge constituted government endorsement of a religion.
At the core of the argument, local people say, is whether the phrase "under God" is more symbolic or religious.
Davis Cope, secretary of the Red River Free Thinkers, used to think the phrase was metaphorical.
"For years I didn't pay particular attention to it. We have always used poetic language whenever we talk about patriotism," he says.
But over the past two decades he's seen religious organizations led by people such as Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson become more politically active. In the process, they have flipped the meaning of metaphorical phrases to mean the United States should be identified as a Christian nation, he says.
"Now I am forced to think about 'under God' as making a religious statement, not a patriotic one," Cope says.
The two small, but controversial, words were added to the pledge mostly as a way to distinguish the United States from the "godless communists," says John Helgeland, a religion and history professor at North Dakota State University.
"From this day forward, the millions of our school children will daily proclaim in every city and town, every village and every rural school house, the dedication of our nation and our people to the Almighty," wrote President Eisenhower at the time.
More than 40 states have enacted policies so public school students recite the Pledge of Allegiance on a regular basis. Minnesota requires public school students to say it at least once a week; students have a right to refrain. There is no requirement in North Dakota.While the United States has never had a government-endorsed church, like other countries it has adopted a civil religion, Helgeland says.
"We simply can't say our country is an accident without divine backing," he says.
Under this model, the president becomes a high priest figure, Washington, D.C., becomes a sacred center and there's a liturgical calendar of festivals invested with spiritual significance: Memorial Day, Fourth of July and such, he says. In this case adopting the language of religion to express that reverence isn't uncommon.
"It's what gives us meaning as a people," he says.
But not all see the language as symbolic and not all think even symbolic religious language is appropriate in a civil pledge.
The Rev. Bruce Noennig, a pastor at Our Redeemer Lutheran Church in Moorhead, thinks it would weaken the pledge to take out the words "under God."
"Whether we want to acknowledge it or not, we are accountable to our God," he says. "It's good for a nation to have a reminder of that."
A Harris Poll taken in 2003 found 90 percent of Americans believe in God. Last summer the attorneys general of all 50 states urged the Supreme Court to review the case, saying the appellate court's decision on the Pledge of Allegiance "defies a nation."
The Bush Administration says it wants to keep the language in the pledge. Nearly half of the country's state legislatures have passed bills in support of the pledge, as is.
Despite what appears to be public sentiment, St. Clair Mellard, as a member of the American Atheists, will protest in Washington, D.C., when the Supreme Court hears oral arguments.
"For people like me who don't have a god, it's not right to include it in a patriotic statement," he says. "If you take it out then you can believe in what you want to believe."
Readers can reach Forum reporter Erin Hemme Froslie at (701) 241-5534