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Meditation 861
One nation under God?

by: Paul W. Sharkey

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One nation under God?

 At least some U.S. citizens know that their “Pledge of Allegiance,” (originally composed in 1892) was modified in 1954 to include the words: “under God” but most are woefully ignorant of the history of that change or of the Pledge itself.  Nevertheless, it is not my purpose to provide that history here.   Anyone so interested can find ample information on it elsewhere.1 Instead, as a philosopher and Apathetic Agnostic, I would like to point out what I believe to be a few interesting and all too ironic implications of this change and to suggest that the only Constitutionally viable understanding of it is an apathetically agnostic one.

First, it might be well to begin by examining the intent expressed in the Pledge’s original formulation: “I pledge allegiance to my flag and republic for which it stands: one nation indivisible with liberty and justice for all.”  The first twelve words express an affirmation of commitment to something: “to my flag and republic for which it stands.”  The last nine define the characteristics of that republic: “one nation indivisible with liberty and justice for all.”  Until 1954 no additions, deletions or changes were made except for those clarifying possible ambiguities that might lead to misunderstanding.  In short, all previous changes were made in the spirit of making it less ambiguous, more definite and explicit and less open to misunderstanding or differing interpretations.   All that changed with the addition of “under God.”

What God?  Who’s God?  For God’s sake, what does “under God” mean? 

I doubt that most people who recite the Pledge – the vast majority of whom are school children – pay any real attention to, have any idea about, or appreciate what they are saying.  I also fear that even those adults who may on occasion be called upon or invited to “pledge their allegiance” ever really stop to think about it either.  That is the pity.  Not only do I have no quarrel with the political ideal of one nation united under a commitment to the principle of liberty and justice for all, I affirm it.   Unfortunately however, I have all too often found that the addition of the phrase “under God” only serves to undermine those ideals even among those reciting the Pledge “in unison” together.2 Again:

What God? Who’s God?  For God’s sake, what does “under God” mean?

Well, if you are a Jew it might mean any one of a number of understandings of YHWH; if you are a Muslim then similarly so for Allah; if you are a Christian, then there are so many different possible understandings as to become for all practical purposes meaningless; not to mention what it might mean if you are a Buddhist, Hindu, Sikh, Zoroastrian.   In short, the addition of the phrase  “under God” does anything but further clarify the meaning and nature of the pledge or promote the unity of those so making it unless -- unless one were to admit that it doesn’t have any referential meaning what-so-ever and not to care: In short, to be apathetically agnostic about it!   Moreover I submit that this is the only interpretation allowable under the U.S Constitution because to hold otherwise would be to violate the establishment clause of the First Amendment.3


  1. See for example: http://www.oldtimeislands.org/pledge/pledge.htm &  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pledge_of_Allegiance

  2. I find it even grammatically interesting that this phrase was inserted between  the words “one nation” and “indivisible,” thereby quite literally separating “one nation” as  “indivisible” by the phrase “under God.”  The original intent (following the Civil War) was to affirm that the United States of America is one indivisible nation – not to be separated by commas, other phrases, or insurrectional divisiveness as might be expressed for example by devotion to a “rebel” flag.  My own experience and research however has shown that the phrase “under God” is all too often (if paid attention to at all) the occasion for divisiveness rather than unity because one must not forget for even one moment that those ardent “believers” of whatever persuasion are, in their own minds at least, thinking that it is their God and only their God that this phrase is about – and by extension, if you don’t think and believe it too, then you are not a “patriot” deserving of the liberty or justice of those who do.

  3. “Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; …”  The Constitution of The United States of America, Amendment One.   Of course the irony (actually paradox) here is that such a ruling or interpretation could be viewed as an establishment of Apathetic Agnosticism, also in violation of the First Amendment.  Better perhaps just to go back to the Pledge as it was before 1954.