When we say "under God," what do we mean?

2014-06-28T00:00:00Z 2014-07-04T10:17:05Z When we say "under God," what do we mean?By PAUL K. HANSON For The Gazette The Billings Gazette
June 28, 2014 12:00 am  • 

I’m old enough to remember the Pledge of Allegiance before the words “under God” were added. It was 60 years ago this month — on June 14, 1954 (Flag Day).

Eisenhower was president, our country was in the early years of the so-called “Cold War” and McCarthyism was sowing fear in our government and citizens. Adding the phrase “under God” to the pledge was yet one more way of despising and denouncing our enemy (and World War II ally), the Soviet Union. They were “communists” and we often used the adjective “godless” to describe them.

Our nation, by contrast, was “under God.” As I recall, these two words were understood as affirming that God had taken our side in this conflict. Somehow that gave us a religious justification for fearing and hating, even killing this enemy. Never mind that there were always more Christians than communists in Russia.

Regrettably, the U.S. was following in a long tradition of countries using religion for a political purpose — to validate, even fanaticize its people and causes. This can become an idolatry. I recall visiting a friend’s family in Germany years ago. The father, a pastor, proudly showed me his World War I helmet with the phrase “Fur Gott und Vaterland” impressed in the steel.

Interestingly the original Pledge of Allegiance was composed in 1892 by Francis Bellamy, a Baptist minister. His text made no reference to God or religion.

The phrase “under God” was borrowed from the concluding lines of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address: “That this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom.”

Of all our presidents, Lincoln was probably most aware of the danger of idolatry. In response to a pious minister’s hope that in the Civil War “... the Lord is on our side,” Lincoln replied, “I am not at all concerned about that ... But it is my constant anxiety and prayer that I and this nation should be on the Lord’s side.”

We might well think of Lincoln’s “anxiety and prayer” whenever we say the Pledge of Allegiance. What does “under God” mean? Is it a compliment or a challenge? If we are “under” God, that would suggest that we want to do God’s will, and that might well involve a lot of study and prayer and national soul-searching. Instead of asking God to bless our particular political party or platform, we might need to determine God’s concerns, God’s values, God’s agenda, and build our platform on those.

As I read the Hebrew and Christian scriptures I see a strong concern for peace, for justice, for the health and welfare of the poor and needy, for welcoming the stranger, yes — even loving our enemies!

Being “under God” involves recognizing that God loves the whole world, not just “believers,” not just my nation, my race, my religion, my culture. It means both enjoying God’s love and favor and being under God’s judgment when I or my country seems to be violating God’s will.

Running on God’s political platform might mean giving up the possibility of being elected. People are more likely to vote their own selfish interest than one which takes into account the needs of others.

Indeed, if we want our nation to be “under God,” it might involve a generous measure of humility. Nationalism and patriotism have their place, but they need to be “under God,” secondary to God. They can become idolatrous if we think that somehow God favors our country over all others.

I know of only two other countries (South Korea and the Philippines) which pledge allegiance to their flag. People from other countries find it puzzling; pledging to a flag? Occasionally we find it necessary to explain to international friends that the flag is a symbol, directing attention to our republic, to liberty and justice for all.

Symbols are very important, but the values and ideals they point to are more important. Memorial Day, Flag Day, the Fourth of July; these summer holidays are good opportunities to ask ourselves whether the phrase “under God” helps us to live out the ideals of liberty and justice for all.

Paul K. Hanson, pastor and educator with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, has served three U.S. congregations and three international assignments. Now retired, he is a member of Bethlehem Lutheran in Billings.

The Faith & Values column appears Saturdays in The Billings Gazette. Pastors, ethicists, educators or others who would like to write a column about faith, ethics or values for the section, should contact: Susan Olp; Billings Gazette; 401 N. Broadway; Billings, MT 5910, or call her at 657-1281; fax to her attention at 657-1208; or email to solp@billingsgazette.com.

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