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Living on the Pledge

I have two problems with the Pledge of Allegiance, and neither one of them has to do with “God.”

My first problem is with prepositions.

Prepositions are loaded parts of speech. And for those whose grammar has gone a little flaccid, here’s a reminder: Prepositions are about relationships between things. In, on, under, through. Beneath, below, beside, beyond. Atop, about, above, aloft. Near, nigh, by, with. Prepositions give us our bearings so that we are never truly lost in space.

To say this is a nation “under” God says many more things about a perceived relationship with God than it does about God’s own Being, assuming that God not only is one, but has one, as well.

To be “under” may connote inferiority. Or the need for protection. Sometimes one is “under” judgment or suspicion or even arrest.

What does it mean to say we are “under” God?

Well, it’s a confession of vulnerability, no matter how you cut the mustard. And it doesn’t take an atheist to feel uncomfortable with vulnerability. Vulnerability is not part of the American myth: It’s our alleged invincibility we trumpet.

So if “under God” suggests vulnerability, then it is not only unconstitutional; it runs against the grain of the American mythos of global invincibility as well.

Of course, in the hue-and-cry to keep God in the pledge, no one is saying that. Perhaps that’s because it sounds wholesome and good to invoke God, as long as we can domesticate our view of God in all the same ways we’ve domesticated the Earth and its creatures. On this point, heaven has kept quiet. Maybe God knows we are only under God as long as God is on our side.

My other problem is with the actual rite of pledging the flag.

I want to be very, very clear here.

I love this country. I don’t see how anyone can read the Declaration of Independence, the Gettysburg Address or the poems of Walt Whitman, a fiercely patriotic gay man—and not feel both proud and blessed to be a United States citizen.

But I don’t believe for a minute that we enhance citizenship when we pledge the flag, any more than we deepen our faith if we genuflect toward the altar, as some Christians do when entering the church sanctuary.

I do believe that for some persons, genuflecting the altar is a deeply symbolic and meaningful aspect of their personal piety. But I would never suggest that it become a compulsory gesture as a measure of our faithfulness.

In the same way, I think that to expect all persons to pledge the flag is a kind of coercion, one that runs the risk of making an idol out of our flag or our pledge.

And curiously enough, running that risk is no guarantee of real national loyalty. We cannot measure love of country by a person’s willingness to pledge the flag. We cannot know if a person is willing to live and die for the principles upon which America was founded on the basis of the Pledge of Allegiance.

Love of country, loyalty to country, living by and dying for the founding principles of our country is a matter of conscience and personal will. A hand on our heart, our eyes trained on the flag will not make us good citizens anymore than our neglecting to pledge will make us bad citizens.

Furthermore, as a person who believes in God and cleaves to a Christian tradition that teaches the transcending love of God that recognizes neither gender nor nation, race nor ability, I am humbled before an even greater blessing than that of national heritage: the blessing of relationship, as a child of God, to all the other children of God.

So what pains me about the spotlight on the pledge is that it was occasioned by an atheist who didn’t want to say “under God” rather than by a person of faith arguing that being compelled to pledge the flag was a violation of their religious freedom.

Now, I know the pledge is here to stay. And I will say it, as I always have, with conviction in my heart because I do love this country and because I do believe that, as long as I live, I am called both as a Christian and an American to work for liberty and justice for all.

The trouble is, pledging or not pledging the flag will not predict whether or not we are truly faithful citizens. But making an idol out of either the flag or the pledge will make us violate what most religions regard as true: that God is no country’s naturalized citizen.

The Boston Globe writer, John Carroll, wrote earlier this week:

“When we claim to be a nation ‘under God’—and it was Lincoln who first used that phrase, at Gettysburg—or when we blithely pray “God bless America,’’ assuming that God’s blessing for this country is unique, we are appropriating for ourselves divine attributes of infinity and immortality that, in fact, have no place on earth.”

It’s an ancient existential pitfall: the hubris that doesn’t see the violence hubris does.

The United States is not the measure of all there is. We are not more holy, more blessed or more deserving of the earth’s bounty and riches. So asking God to bless America is only a reasonable request if we believe that God’s blessings have been liberally shed everywhere else except on America—and our request is then made with humility and need.

But instead of humbly petitioning God, as citizens we are asked to boldly pledge the flag.

To my way of thinking, without “under God” the pledge becomes even more troublesome. And with the phrase included, it presupposes a view of God I find limiting and disingenuous.

But we live in an age in which conformity to popular sentiment is a seen as a measure of national loyalty, in which public discourse is hamstrung by dissent and our leaders seek to root out scapegoats and traitors because it is always easier to blame than to reflect and repent.

So the pledge is here to stay and here we are, circumstantially, though perhaps not providentially, pledged to say it.

—Jo Page

You can contact Jo Page at jopage@graceniska.org.


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