In the summer of 1952, when I was 6 years old, I learned to “pledge allegiance” to the American flag, the Christian flag and the Bible in Vacation Bible School at First Baptist Church, Decatur, Texas. The American pledge went like this: I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the Republic for which it stands. One nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all. That fall, when I started first grade, we said those words at the start of every school day. When I was 6 years old, church and state taught me “the Pledge.”
In June 1954, however, a Cold War-oriented U.S. Congress mandated a revised standard version of that pledge, so my third-grade class at Decatur Elementary learned to say, “One nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” We accepted the change, no questions asked.
Years later, I realized that the addition of under God was my first real encounter with American Civil Religion, what sociologist Robert Bellah called “the religion of Republic” – one example of “certain common elements of religious orientation that the great majority of Americans share. . . expressed in a set of beliefs, symbols, and rituals.”
Turns out, inspiration for revising the Pledge came from the Reverend George Docherty, pastor of New York Avenue Presbyterian Church, Washington, D.C., who declared: “To omit the words ‘under God’ in the Pledge of Allegiance is to omit the definitive factor in the American way of life.” Docherty, who also marched with Martin Luther King, Jr., believed that “under God” was general enough to include multiple religions. Atheists, however, were in another category. “An atheistic American,” he insisted, “is a contradiction in terms;” concluding, “If you deny the Christian ethic, you fall short of the American ideal of life.”
“While a generic deity may be appropriate for government mottos, is it at all adequate for genuine faith?”
For many Americans then and now, American Civil Religion remains inseparable from Christianity, evident in current efforts among some 30 state legislatures to mandate the posting of “In God We Trust” (IGWT) in multiple government-related contexts. In 2006 the U.S. Senate reaffirmed “In God We Trust” as the national motto, and in 2011 the House of Representatives followed suit, including an admonition for “the public display of the national motto in all public buildings, public schools and other government institutions.” (That motto has been on U.S. currency since 1956, but with unpaid TSA employees currently staffing airport security posts, let’s not push the fact.)
By 2018, several states, including Louisiana, Alabama, Florida, Arizona, Arkansas and Tennessee, had approved IGWT laws, encouraged by the Congressional Prayer Caucus Foundation through Project Blitz, a 116-page, how-to guide for legislators. The Minnesota legislature passed a similar mandate, but it was vetoed by the governor. In North Carolina, it passed the House but stalled in the Senate. One Indiana legislator has proposed a bill that requires posting “In God We Trust” and that also would allow school districts to “require the teaching of various theories concerning the origin of life, including creation science” and to teach the Bible through comparative religion courses.
Why now? Reasons abound. First, current efforts reflect enduring Culture War debates that emanated from the Supreme Court’s decision in Engel v. Vitale (1962) regarding “official prayer in public schools,” an action cited by many conservatives as provoking an enduring moral decline in America. Second, many IGWT advocates believe it is a necessary protection for religious liberty, a Constitutional right that Prayer Caucus supporters say is “under increasing attack, particularly for Christians.” Third, although IGWT supporters insist the motto is deity-generic, many clearly view it as an assertion of the nation’s origins in Christian or “Judeo-Christian” principles now undermined by militant secularism, rampant cultural pluralism, obsessive political correctness or other “anti-church,” “anti-God” philosophies.
“Religious liberty means that we dare not confuse a national motto with a government-mandated confession of faith.”
As a student of American religion, I take seriously those concerns and have spent considerable time studying them. Yet as something of an old-timey Baptist on matters of religious liberty, I would ask several questions of the “In God We Trust” movement:
Is this less an effort to promote religious liberty than a direct attempt to mandate a subtle but dangerous Nuevo Religious Establishment in the public square? Should national religious mottos be government enforced?
While a generic deity may be appropriate for government mottos, is it at all adequate for genuine faith? The ever-insightful historian Martin Marty says that “‘God is a generic term’ is the biggest insult to the God of my faith. God can’t be generic. Or, rather, if (‘God’) is generic, it doesn’t mean anything at all.”
Are efforts to mandate postings of “In God We Trust” in state-based settings a result of the inability of religious – particularly Christian – communities to stem the tide of numerical and financial decline or to enact a gospel that captures the attention, let alone the hearts, of Americans across the cultural spectrum?
Is this yet another attempt to use the state to do the church’s work? Haven’t we learned anything from history about the folly of such endeavors?
In Soul Liberty (1991), longtime Brown University historian William McLoughlin offered this assessment of the Americanization of white Baptists in the 19th century and beyond. His words are a case study appropriate for interpreting larger issues raised by 21st-century “In God We Trust” legislation and the quest for authentic faith:
By entering the mainstream the Baptists ceased to be critics of American society; their piety relaxed; and they became captives of the culture against which they had fought for so long. As the embodiment of American values, they were guilty of what Reinhold Niebuhr called “absolutizing the relative.” That is, they came to believe that because the American social order had accepted their evangelical views, then America became the equivalent of a Christian society. They concluded that the United States was, in fact, the most Christian society the world had ever known and that the Baptist cause must sink or swim with America.”
In 21st-century America, religious liberty means that we dare not confuse a national motto with a government-mandated confession of faith.