One Nation Under God
“One nation under God”: Is this phrase from our Pledge of Allegiance constitutional? Why should a secular state that is supposed to be neutral on religion want to include such an affirmation in its pledge? It is hard for a lot of people today to see answers to these questions that were considered self-evident a couple of generations ago. But they are good answers still.
What Respect for a Deity Does
In Homer’s Odyssey, there’s a scene in which Odysseus has been shipwrecked trying to get back home from the Trojan War. He washes up on shore in a strange land. When he meets the inhabitants, there is a burning question on his mind: Who are these people? “Savages are they, strangers to courtesy? Or gentle folk who know and fear the gods?” If they recognize the gods, there are certain standards of behavior he can reasonably hope for from them.
Zeus cares for wayfarers and will “avenge the unoffending guest” who is mistreated. But people who do not reverence Zeus might do anything. And so it plays out: the Phaiakaians, who honor the same pantheon as Odysseus, care for him. But the Cyclops, who “cares not a whistle for your thundering Zeus,” devours half his men.
Even a false religion may be better than no religion at all.
Without Respect for God, Freedom is a Myth
Individuals in our country have the right to believe in any god or no god. But it is important that the state which upholds that right conceive itself as under some higher authority. Why? If there is nothing above the state, the state becomes absolute. When the state becomes absolute, freedom is a myth.
Therefore, a democracy capable of guaranteeing freedom of religion -- even for atheists -- is only possible if it thinks of itself as “under God.” That is why our Declaration of Independence holds these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, and that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights.
Well, where do these rights come from? There are only two possibilities. Either they come from God -- “are endowed by the Creator” -- or they are granted by the state itself. But notice something very important. Rights that come from the state cannot by their very nature be “inalienable.” Inalienable means that they cannot be taken away. You can take away my life by killing me, but you cannot take away my right to live. That’s why killing me is murder.
“Endowed by Their Creator”
What God gives is always ours, based on the unchanging nature He gave us. But what the state gives, the state can take away. Therefore, the only way rights can be inalienable is if they come from a higher authority than Man or than the State. The only way rights can be inalienable is if they are endowed by the Creator.
Yet there is much confusion abroad today about such matters. What did the founding fathers really say about this issue? What does it mean? How does it apply today? I can summarize the situation no better than with the following villanelle:
We Hold These Truths
"We hold these truths to be self-evident: All men by their Creator are endowed …" That's what they said -- but what could they have meant?
A wall of separation hard as flint With crossing traffic strictly disallowed? To some, that answer seems self-evident.
"No law respecting an establishment" Means no state churches privileged and proud. That's what they said -- but what could they have meant?
"Endowed" -- by whom? And then, the government "Ordained" -- by whom? The answer, said aloud, Was held by them to be self-evident.
Their lives and sacred honors they'd have spent Before to merely men they would have bowed. That's what they said -- but what could they have meant?
"Created equal": Could that be a hint? Too long this sun has hid behind a cloud. We hold this truth to be self-evident:
The Founding Fathers said just what they meant. (D.T.W.)
What a wonderful irony! If atheists want their freedom of religion to be secure, to remain inalienable, they have to hope that the United States will continue to be a nation under God. Christians should be thankful that our official documents still recognize this fact, and citizens of any faith should pray that it stays that way.
Donald T. Williams, PhD, R.A. Forrest Scholar and Professor of English at Toccoa Falls College, is the author of thirteen books, including An Encouraging Thought: The Christian Worldview in the Writings of J. R. R. Tolkien (Cambridge, OH: Christian Publishing House, 2018).