At a rally in San Antonio as part of the “ReAwaken America” tour, former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn said the quiet part out loud: “If we are going to have one nation under God, which we must, we have to have one religion. One nation under God and one religion under God.”
His weekend statement sent shockwaves over social media, but for those of us who have been watching the acceleration of Christian nationalism over the past several years, the admission was hardly surprising. It echoes explicit efforts that would damage our democracy.
Such language, emphasizing non-specific religious language in official settings, is not simply a misguided appeal to patriotism or national unity. Project Blitz, a project of the Congressional Prayer Caucus Foundation, explained the rationale behind a model bill for states to mandate the posting of “In God We Trust” in public schools: “More than just a motto, though, it is our country’s foundation and an important part of our identity as Americans.”
Flynn’s longer speech reveals how much he relies on one of the hallmarks of Christian nationalism — the emphasis of a mythical history of the United States as founded as a “Christian nation,” by God’s providential hand that gives our country a special place in history, the present and a premillennialist future. “There is a time, and you have to believe this: that God Almighty is like involved in this country because this is it. This is it. This is the last place on Earth. This is, this is the shining city on the hill,” he said.
The religious reference of “one nation under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance since the 1950s acknowledges religion as part of our country’s history but certainly does not negate our country’s protections for religious freedom or give the government (much less Michael Flynn) authority to define “the country’s religion.”
One main problem with Flynn’s version of “one nation under God” is that no one religious identity or belief ever has united Americans. The idea of a national religion is directly at odds with the promise of the U.S. Constitution that our government stays neutral when it comes to religion. In Flynn’s United States, many Americans are excluded — those who don’t practice whatever the chosen national faith would be, those who are not monotheistic and those who do not affiliate with religion at all.
“No one religious identity or belief ever has united Americans.”
The framers, even with all of their faults and injustices with regard to recognizing the equality of all people, understood that the best way to ensure everyone’s religious freedom was for the government to refuse to take sides between faiths or even between religion and nonreligion.
They made this choice by forming a secular government that would protect the rights of a religiously diverse people. The new system, enshrined in Article VI’s ban on religious tests for public office and the First Amendment’s dual protections for religious freedom, was the product of their firsthand experience of how a government-established religion leads to the persecution and oppression of adherents of dissenting faiths and views, as well as the co-opting of the majority religion by the government.
Baptist dissenters like John Leland and Isaac Backus who were politically influential during the framing period preached how a secular government would not be hostile to religion but rather would allow religious pluralism to flourish without government control or support. As Leland wrote in 1791, the same year the First Amendment was ratified, “Let every person speak freely without fear, maintain the principles that he believes, worship according to his own faith, either one God, three Gods, no God, or twenty Gods; and let government protect him in doing so.”
If religious identity does not unite us as a nation, the promise of religious freedom for all still can. BJC coordinates an ecumenical project called “Christians Against Christian Nationalism,” with a statement including affirmations such as these:
- People of all faiths and none have the right and responsibility to engage constructively in the public square.
- One’s religious affiliation, or lack thereof, should be irrelevant to one’s standing in the civic community.
- Government should not prefer one religion over another or religion over nonreligion.
- America’s historic commitment to religious pluralism enables faith communities to live in civic harmony with one another without sacrificing our theological convictions.
A recommitment to these basic principles of religious freedom can unite people across religious, political, ideological, geographic and other divides. They will serve us much better than elevating easily manipulable incantations like “In God We Trust” and “One Nation Under God.” Flynn’s speech is just the latest example of how these seemingly innocuous mottos can be used for destructive and divisive purposes.