Remember When This Was One Nation, Under God?



I am sorry, but today we must think. Please put on your reasoning cap. It is time for a lesson in American history, and the meaning of the words "under God" in the pledge to the flag.

To begin, Webster gives seven definitions of "religion." The first calls religion "a belief in a superhuman power or powers to be obeyed and worshiped as the creator(s) and ruler(s) of the universe." That seems to encompass anybody's god.

The next six definitions speak of "religion" as a practice or institution rather than a faith. Keep that difference in mind. Somehow in this discussion about the pledge to the flag I fail to hear the distinction made between expressing faith in the Creator and making a law "respecting an establishment of religion."

As the American papers were drawn up and the institutions of government hammered out, an appeal was made to the authority of God. That was most clearly stated in the Declaration of Independence. You probably know the words by heart, "We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."

Now let's review Article I of the amendments to the Constitution of the United States. "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances."

The founders of our nation made it perfectly clear that there would be no institutional forms of belief superimposed by law upon the people. It was not their intention, however, to eliminate mention of God in our expressions of patriotism or they would not have brought God into it in the first place. Fundamental to all this is that from the earliest days of our nation, freedom was predicated upon faith in God.

The belief that each person has inalienable rights and is of equal value cannot be separated from belief in the Creator who endowed each person with these rights and value. The word "inalienable" was used because these rights were given by the Creator and not just permitted by the state. Without this recognition of God as the basis of our freedoms, those rights would be subject to a secular interpretation that could change with every new administration. Each fad or religious emphasis that blew over the country could be used to reinterpret the meaning of "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness." Civil law would become absolute; the right to free expression or dissent would erode as lawmaking bodies assumed the authority to give or take away those rights.

However, the fathers made it clear that our fundamental liberty rests on faith in an authority beyond the government. That authority is called God, however one wishes to interpret God. This ensures that a human government can never sacrifice our rights. Human dignity is not a right bestowed by the state or by the majority, but by the Creator God. It is therefore imperative that we make continued reference to this source of inalienable rights. The responsibility of the elected officials is not to bestow them but to abide by these rights and safeguard them for the welfare of all persons.

I know it is repetitious, but let me say it again. These rights are outside the province of civil government, so, in fact, we are one nation under God. It is not "an establishment of religion" to make this affirmation of faith official. It is a philosophical truth more than a religious truth.

By the way, if we were to eliminate the phrase "under God" from the pledge to the flag, what are we to do with America's motto, "In God we trust," that is inscribed all over the land in marble and on all our money?

What are we to do with all our immigrant forefathers who came to this land in order to express their religious faith and escape tyranny?

What are we to do with all the presidents who take their oath of office with a hand on the Bible, and all the court witnesses who take an oath in God's name?

What are we to do with those paintings in our schools that depict George Washington kneeling in the snow to pray at Valley Forge? It was a time when the fortunes of the new nation were at low ebb. His example of faith kept the spark of hope alive in his army.

Let me add an editorial comment. It does seem to me that the opening of Congress with prayer borders on the establishment of religion. Certainly the opening of our town council meetings with prayers that usually are very sectarian in nature also borders on the unconstitutional. This is different than simply stating in the pledge to the flag that we are "one nation under God."

I am a Christian by faith, and when I pray I ask my prayers in the name of Jesus Christ.

For me to participate in the establishment of such a prayer as part of the official town agenda -- bringing to it my sectarian interpretations -- would seem a violation of the Constitution. I can go outside in the parking lot and pray with anyone who will join me, and be within my "rights."

Well, history itself is an interpretation, and that's mine.

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