Column: A couple of words turn a pledge into something more serious

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, July 2, 2002

What a furor a couple of words causes: Under God.

A couple of federal judges agreed with an atheist that the words are an endorsement of religion and are therefore &uot;unconstitutional&uot;, which set off a tempest all over the country. Politicians in Washington ran to the steps of the Capitol to say the pledge &045; in front of TV cameras, of course &045; and engaged in their usual criticism of our legal system and its &uot;unpopular&uot; decisions. Everyone seems upset that someone doesn’t like a Pledge of Allegiance that includes God.

I don’t think the pledge is unconstitutional. I like a lot of the things it says about our country and us. But I also have a problem with saying &uot;under God&uot; in a pledge said to the flag of our nation.

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Now I don’t think it would be right to ban the pledge because God is in there. I myself just skip over those two words whenever I recite it. It’s not because I see the pledge as a form of idol worship, like Jehovah’s Witnesses do. But there’s a reason that children often will end the pledge with the word &uot;Amen.&uot; Like children, I take my faith seriously, and that means the words &uot;under God&uot; turn a civic pledge into a prayer, making it appear as if the United States’ existence is somehow ordained by God &045; that God is the ultimate authority for the things we do.

Yelling about the court’s decision and playing games with patriotism will be one result of the current controversy. But something that could happen is an explanation to our children of what &uot;under God&uot; actually means in the pledge. Saying that we live &uot;under God,&uot; that God is our ultimate authority, is a very important statement, with far-reaching consequences. Does it mean, for example, that our leaders regularly consult with God about decisions? And which God do our leaders consult with: Jesus? Allah? YHWH? Lord Krishna? Does it mean that our customs, laws and policies are better than those of a country that doesn’t publicly proclaim their obedience to God?

Let’s say that we do mean the God of Christianity in the pledge. Do we want to stand before the throne of God and answer for the murderous policies of repressive regimes that we Americans supported with money and weapons? What would Jesus think about throwing all those Japanese-Americans into detention camps during WWII or forcing Indians onto reservations before that? Would Jesus treat immigrants fleeing poverty as if they were the scum of the earth?

Somehow I don’t think we measure up to anybody’s vision of a truly &uot;God-fearing&uot; society. I don’t think we ever will.

Nonetheless, I can think of ways that living &uot;under God&uot; would be good for this country. It would mean showing more compassion to the poor, instead of treating them as if they were lazy or dangerous. It would mean a legal system that offered more forgiveness, and less desire to execute everyone who deserves it. It would mean spending more money on feeding and educating children than on aircraft carriers, stealth bombers and missile defense shields.

Unfortunately, I suspect that we wouldn’t agree on what &uot;under God&uot; means. So we’ll go on living with a compromise that doesn’t offend most of us and which ends up being meaningless: the phrase &uot;under God&uot; is just a way of showing the world we are religious, but saying it doesn’t place any conditions on our behavior. However, invoking God without a clear idea of why comes pretty close to taking God’s name in vain. It might be best to just take those words out; after all, the pledge worked fine without them for more than half a century.

On a side note, it’s ironic that all of this criticism is falling on judges at the same time that the Bush administration is insisting on an &uot;independent&uot; judicial system for the Palestinians, with judges who would have the power to make unpopular decisions. A legal system that is held captive by terrorists, or by opinion polls and partisan politics, does not have that kind of power. When it comes to the U.S. Constitution, sometimes the right answer is not the most popular one.

David Rask Behling is a rural Albert Lea resident. His column appears Tuesdays.