Early in July, both houses of Congress passed a resolution to have the Pledge of Allegiance and “One Nation Under God” inscribed in prominent places on the walls of the new Capitol Visitors Center in Washington, DC. On July 14th, the Freedom From Religion Foundation, (FFRF), the largest atheist and agnostic organization in the country, based in Madison Wisconsin, filed a lawsuit designed to prevent the words from being engraved in the center.
On the surface, it looks like just another church/state lawsuit, and over a trivial matter at that, but looking a little deeper, the lawsuit addresses who we are as a nation and whether or not we treat our citizens according to the principals laid down in our founding document, the Constitution.
One of the favorite arguments between believers and non-believers is the old “Is the United States a Christian Nation” or not debate. Turns out, it depends on how the question is framed, and what’s meant by “Christian Nation.” There is no doubt that America was first settled by Christians, at least in the north, and that a good many of our founders considered themselves Christians, although most wouldn’t have been thought so by many Christian fundamentalists today. In spite of the religiosity, or lack thereof, of the founders one major fact stands out, irrefutable and incontestable, our Constitution is a purely secular document, and the only references to deity of any kind are exclusionary.
For a complete discussion of this question, see my paper on the subject: “Christian Nation, You Say?” elsewhere on this web site. For this discussion, I will focus, not on what the founders might have thought, believed or felt, but what they actually did, and how what they did relates to the question addressed in the FFRF’s lawsuit.
Article VI, Section 3 of the Constitution contains what we now refer to today as the “exclusionary clause.” It reads (emphasis mine):
“The Senators and Representatives before mentioned, and the Members of the several State Legislatures, and all executive and judicial Officers, both of the United States and of the several States, shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation, to support this Constitution; but no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.”
The word “Affirmation” is often overlooked, but its presence is really quite deliberate and purposeful. It was not in the original draft of the article, and was added, with the “religious test” clause, on August 30, 1787, according to Madison’s notes, following debate. The presence of the word “Affirmation” clearly says that the founders never intended to require that any Federal or State officeholder take an oath on the bible or any other religious book. In this section, the Constitution actually goes out of its way to protect the rights of non-believers.
Without a doubt, the intent of the founders was to make the United States Government as God-neutral as they possibly could, and they succeeded, judging by the loud outcries that issued from pulpits all over the land upon the Constitution’s release to the states for ratification. There was a firestorm of opposition to the “Godless document,” but, in the end, the Constitution escaped without a scratch.
So, for the purpose of this discussion, we have a secular Constitution, as it cannot be interpreted any other way. The “Establishment” clause in the Bill of Rights creates what Jefferson called a “wall of separation between church and state” that has been enforced by the Federal courts and the Supreme Court time and time again since its ratification, leaving no room for doubt of its intent.
E pluribus Unum, Latin for “Out of Many, One,” was adapted for use on the official Seal of the United States by an act of Congress in 1782. Although it was never codified by law, it was considered a de facto motto of the United States until 1956, when, at the height of the “red scare,” the Congress adapted “In God We Trust” as our official motto. The phrase has appeared on US coins since allowed by an act of Congress in 1865.
The words “under God” were added to the Pledge of Allegiance by an act of Congress and signed into law by President Eisenhower on Flag Day (June 14th 1954). As he signed the bill, Eisenhower said: “These words [“under God”] will remind Americans that despite our great physical strength we must remain humble. They will help us to keep constantly in our minds and hearts the spiritual and moral principles which alone give dignity to man, and upon which our way of life is founded.”(Emphasis mine)
I liked Ike! He was President, after all, when I was in grade school, and he was a war hero to boot. What’s not to like? Looking back on this statement, however, I can see he was just as intolerant and narrow-minded as any of our current right-wing Christians. The unfounded beliefs that there are no “moral principals” save those from God, and that our country is founded upon “his principles” are anathema to the perhaps sixty million Americans who have no belief in the supernatural.
There have been prior challenges to “Under God” in the pledge. From Wikipedia:
In a 2002 case brought by atheist Michael Newdow, whose daughter was being taught the Pledge in school, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled the phrase “under God” an unconstitutional endorsement of monotheism when the Pledge was promoted in public school. In 2004, the Supreme Court heard Elk Grove Unified School District v. Newdow, an appeal of the ruling, and rejected Newdow’s claim on the grounds that he was not the custodial parent, and therefore lacked standing, thus avoiding ruling on the merits of whether the phrase was constitutional in a school-sponsored recitation. On January 3, 2005, a new suit was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of California on behalf of three unnamed families. On September 14, 2005, District Court Judge Lawrence Karlton ruled in their favor. Citing the precedent of the 2002 ruling by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, Judge Karlton issued an Order stating that, upon proper motion, he will enjoin the school district defendants from continuing their practices of leading children in pledging allegiance to “one Nation under God”
In 2006, in the Florida case Frazier v. Alexandre, No. 05-81142 (S.D. Fla. May 31, 2006) “A federal district court in Florida has ruled that a 1942 state law requiring students to stand and recite the Pledge of Allegiance violates the First and Fourteenth Amendments of the U.S. Constitution
The Complaint notes that the selection of “In God We Trust” as a motto, and the insertion of “under God” into the formerly secular Pledge of Allegiance, were both adopted belatedly in the 1950s during the Cold War. The godly motto, adopted in 1956, did not appear upon paper currency until 1957. The pledge was tampered with by Congress in 1954, after generations of schoolchildren had learned the original, godless version composed in 1892. Both changes were the result of religious lobbying. The Congressional Report accompanying the 1954 pledge act, which openly disapproved of atheism, read: “The inclusion of God in the pledge . . . would serve to deny the atheistic and materialistic concepts of communism.”
The Foundation Complaint said the Congressional appropriations “will give actual and apparent government endorsement and advancement of religion,” while excluding nonreligious Americans.
” ‘In God We Trust’ excludes and treats as outsiders the millions of adult Americans, including as many as 15% of all adults, who are not religious, i.e., atheists, agnostics, skeptics and freethinkers, none of whom possesses a belief in a god; the mandated language diminishes nonbelievers by making god-belief synonymous with citizenship.”
Neither phrase has any secular purpose, and they are both extremely divisive, as they clearly indicate that those of us who have no belief in god are somehow not quite as “American” as those who do. There is enough to divide us already, we don’t need to be set apart by the nonexistent.