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Mar 30th 2004

civil religion & the pledge of allegiance

::: part i of iii on civil religion :::

part ii[here]
part iii is [here]

WASHINGTON (AP) — A California atheist told the Supreme Court Wednesday that the words ”under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance are unconstitutional and offensive to people who don’t believe there is a God.

Solicitor General Theodore Olson, the Bush administration lawyer arguing for the Sacramento school district, said the Pledge of Allegiance should be upheld as a ”ceremonial, patriotic exercise.”

A new poll shows that Americans overwhelmingly support the reference to God. Almost nine in 10 people said the reference to God belongs in the pledge despite constitutional questions about the separation of church and state, according to an Associated Press poll. [link]


unquestionably, america’s founders wanted the presence of a civil religion in america. one bright scholar has poured over primary source materials and come to that very conclusion [word document]. still don’t know what “civil religion” is? in an attempt to define it for you, i’ve shamelessly lifted the following from facsnet.org

“Civil religion is the mysterious way that religion, politics, ideas of nationhood, patriotism, etc. — energized by faith outlooks — represents a national force,” said Rowland Sherrill, chair of Religious Studies at IUPUI. “Civil religion gets very little careful thought. But we live in it, and we appeal to it all of the time.”

The term “civil religion” was coined by the philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau in his treatise, “On the Social Contract” (1762), which was widely influential among America’s founders.

House of Representatives, After the Civil War: The House moved to its current location on the south side of the Capitol in 1857. It contained the 'largest Protestant Sabbath audience' in the United States when the First Congregational Church of Washington held services there from 1865 to 1868.

“There is, therefore, a purely civil profession of faith of which the Sovereign should fix the articles, not exactly as religious dogmas, but as social sentiments without which a man cannot be a good citizen or a faithful subject,” Rousseau wrote. “Now that there is and can be no longer an exclusive national religion, tolerance should be given to all religions that tolerate others, so long as their dogmas contain nothing contrary to the duties of citizenship.”

Academic discussion of civil religion in America was revived by Berkley professor Robert Bellah in his 1967 essay of the same name, published in the journal Daedalus.

“What we have, from the earliest years of the republic, is a collection of beliefs, symbols and rituals with respect to sacred things and institutionalized in a collectivity,” he wrote. “American civil religion has its own prophets and its own martyrs; its own sacred events and sacred places; its own solemn rituals and symbols. It is concerned that America be a society as perfectly in accord with the will of God as [humans] can make it, and a light to all the nations.”
There are many variations of the definition of civil religion. Sherrill defines it this way:

“American civil religion is a form of devotion, outlook and commitment that deeply and widely binds the citizens of the nation together with ideas they possess and express about the sacred nature, the sacred ideals, the sacred character, and sacred meanings of their country – its blessedness by God, and its special place and role in the world and in human history,” he said.

Civil religion transcends denomination, and one need not even be a religious believer to believe in the rightness of the country, Sherrill said. But historically, Americans have viewed their country in religious terms. [link]

the harmless but essential, “under god” is one instance of the american civil religion, which is spiritual yet non-denominational. other elements and themes of civil religion in america are:

James Caldwell (1734-1781), a Presbyterian minister at Elizabeth, New Jersey, was one of the many clergymen who served as chaplains during the Revolutionary War. At the battle of Springfield, New Jersey, on June 23, 1780, when his company ran out of wadding, Caldwell was said to have dashed into a nearby Presbyterian Church, scooped up as many Watts hymnals as he could carry, and distributed them to the troops, shouting 'put Watts into them, boys.' Caldwell and his wife were both killed before the war ended.

·Myths: Sacred stories, parables and legendary acts of heroism, such as George Washington’s feats of heroism in the Revolutionary War; and Abraham Lincoln’s great sacrifices to preserve the union.

·Rituals: Ceremonies and actions that define communities and cross denominational lines, such as the honoring of the dead after Sept. 11, memorializing people who died in battle, and saying the Pledge of Allegiance when it includes the “under God” phrase.

·Ethics: Codes of moral conduct, what the Puritans called “cutting covenants with the Lord,” and enacting covenants with one another.

·Aesthetics: Art, music, and architecture – such as public buildings and courthouses built in classical style, and other structures and art forms infused with elements of Americana.

Congress set December 18, 1777, as a day of thanksgiving on which the American people 'may express the grateful feelings of their hearts and consecrate themselves to the service of their divine benefactor' and on which they might 'join the penitent confession of their manifold sins . . . that it may please God, through the merits of Jesus Christ, mercifully to forgive and blot them out of remembrance.' Congress also recommends that Americans petition God 'to prosper the means of religion for the promotion and enlargement of that kingdom which consisteth in righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Ghost.'

·Doctrines: The Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights.

·Social formations: Veterans of Foreign Wars, the American Legion, Daughters of the American Revolution, etc.

·Chosen-ness: The idea that the nation and its citizens have somehow been chosen by God for a higher purpose.

·Freedom and liberty: Universal ideas that no one can oppose.

·Individualism: America places a strong emphasis on individual freedom and responsibility, which also places a heavy obligation on individuals to live up to the covenant, Sherrill said.

·The “American dream”: Going from “rags to riches,” or making one’s fortune. This theme comes with the caveat that it must involve the other civil covenants, Sherrill said. Wealth must somehow be given back to the community in the form of philanthropy or social services. [source]

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we are not doing anyone a favor if we ban every reference to god in public discourse. if we remove “under god” from the pledge, there are a lot of essential elements and themes of americanism that will eventually go down with it.

One Response to “civil religion & the pledge of allegiance”

  1. People who are truly in favor of faith and who are interested in preserving their right and the right of future generations to practice their faith MUST be in favor of a separation of church and state. You can read my more detailed argument on this at my blog here.

    Also, the biggest issue I have with the pledge of allegiance is that it is a pledge to a flag and to a state rather than a pledge to the underlying principles. I have proposed a rewrite of the pledge on my blog here.

    http://www.barrell.com/blog/archives/2005/05/what_goes_aroun.html
    http://www.barrell.com/blog/archives/2005/05/pledge_redux.html

    –Dylan