One Nation Under Gosh

I think I watched more golf in one sitting this past Sunday than ever before.*  During the final round of the 2011 U.S. Open, sports fans everywhere were on the edges of their seats (well, as much as possible for watching golf, anyway) as 22-year-old Irishman Rory McIlroy shattered the all-time U.S. Open score record by four strokes and secured his first major PGA title victory.  It was a pretty exciting day for professional sports and for the good people of the Emerald Isle, but many red-blooded patriotic Christian Americans were outraged by the 2011 U.S. Open, for a reason that will eventually validate this paragraph’s existence on a blog about Jesus and the Church.

At the start of Sunday’s coverage of the event, NBC played a feature that was essentially meant to highlight a bunch of awesome famous American stuff and generally show how sweet America is.  While I presumably did have the TV on when this feature aired, it completely escaped my notice–probably because I was too busy listening to my uncle joke about the newly-popularized use of therapeutic BOTOX injections to treat hemorrhoid problems.**  (It’s real, I promise.)  Anyway, a few hours later commentator Dan Hicks took a break from the action to say something that wasn’t about golf at all, and this time I was paying attention.  (Check out this classy video-camera-pointed-at-a-TV footage!)

Before his statement was over I could already guess what had been so offensively omitted from the pledge of allegiance.  Here’s the original feature:

As you can see, somebody at NBC decided that the full pledge of allegiance would not appear in the feature (either time it was recited), and the phrase “under God” was one of the few portions of the pledge that did not make the final cut.  Though the specific source and purpose of this decision are unknown, many viewers were outraged by the omission and immediately began tweeting and blogging about their indignation over the purported travesty.  Before long, NBC became aware of the outcry, realized their faux pas, and issued an on-air apology to minimize backlash.  Nevertheless, the feature and subsequent apology have been a popular talking point since then, due no doubt to the endless potential for disagreement and controversy over whether the phrase “under God” should be in the pledge in the first place.

Now I think most of us can agree that NBC made a mistake–if not by violating some moral principle, then at the very least by inviting negative publicity and unnecessarily offending viewers.  I figure those people who are offended by the God-phrase being in the pledge are at least used to it being there and wouldn’t have fussed about it to NBC had they run the full pledge in the feature.  Whoever thought they’d make more people happy by taking “under God” out of the feature sorely underestimated the passion of those who feel it important for America to formally and officially acknowledge the sovereignty of God over the nation.  While NBC certainly has the right to edit the pledge however they choose for their broadcast, it is not their place to decide what should or should not actually be in the pledge, and if it is in fact true that the omission was meant to advance an anti-God-phrase agenda (as many have taken the liberty of assuming without any evidence), the U.S. Open was probably not the ideal front from which to launch an ideological attack on a well-established, traditional, and official government articulation.

But, of course, the real question is whether the phrase “under God” really does belong in the pledge of allegiance to the flag of the United States of America.  The common assumption is that most Christians like it there, and most non-Christians don’t–but stating people’s feelings about the God-phrase doesn’t really answer the question of whether it is indeed right or fitting.

Personally, I love God, I love America, and I do not think the phrase “under God” should be in the pledge of allegiance.

A few years ago, I read an article by Christianity Today senior writer Rodney Clapp that opened my eyes to some very serious theological problems the God-phrase causes for Christians.  Much of the issue turns on the fact that we don’t get to decide what the word God means in the pledge; the authors (i.e. our governing officials) do.  For instance, a 2004 U.S. Supreme Court case (Elk Grove Unified School District v. Newdow) dealt with the constitutionality of the God-phrase given the disestablishment clause in the 1st Amendment of the Constitution (“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof”).  Though the case was eventually dismissed on technical grounds, several of the justices realized the dilemma on their hands–a reference to a deity in an official national pledge–and decided to write opinions anyway.  For instance, in defending the existence of the God-phrase, former Chief Justice Bill Rehnquist wrote:

The phrase “under God” is in no sense a prayer, nor an endorsement of any religion, but a simple recognition of the fact noted in H. R. Rep. No. 1693, at 2: “From the time of our earliest history our peoples and our institutions have reflected the traditional concept that our Nation was founded on a fundamental belief in God.”  Reciting the Pledge, or listening to others recite it, is a patriotic exercise, not a religious one; participants promise fidelity to our flag and our Nation, not to any particular God, faith, or church.

In her Opinion, Justice Sandra O’Connor took a similar stance:

It [the pledge] does not refer to a nation “under Jesus” or “under Vishnu,” but instead acknowledges religion in a general way: a simple reference to a generic “God.”…  The phrase “under God,” conceived and added at a time when our national religious diversity was neither as robust nor as well recognized as it is now, represents a tolerable attempt to acknowledge religion and to invoke its solemnizing power without favoring any individual religious sect or belief system.

I hope some pretty big red flags popped up in your mind just now as you read these explanations of what “God” must be like in order to be allowed into an official national statement.  Clapp argues in response to Rehnquist and O’Connor’s remarks that “to cite or refer to a ‘God’ who is not the subject or object of ‘any religion,’ who is not the ‘particular God’ of any given faith or church, is to introduce a ‘God’ additional to and apart from the ‘particular’ living God of the Christian church.”

I don’t expect you to be convinced yet, but if you’re interested in the full scoop, you really should read Clapp’s article, which you will find here.  Please, I implore you.  Read it.

And if, like myself, you find the discussion of the pledge of allegiance leading you to inquire about the other references to and invocations of “God” in official government documents and national proclamations (i.e. the Declaration of Independence, the Gettysburg Address, many patriotic songs, almost every presidential inaugural address), I offer to you my undergraduate capstone research project on the existence and implications of America’s civil religion.

One Nation Under Gosh

Cheers.

* In the interest of full disclosure, I was channel-flipping back and forth between the Open and The Empire Strikes Back for a good part of the time.  In this regard, I have no regrets and apologize for nothing.
** “They should call it BUTTOX!” he quipped jocularly.

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