This term, the United States Supreme Court will consider the constitutionality of the Pledge of Allegiance. At issue is whether the phrase "under God" suggests a government establishment of religion, and therefore whether the pledge should be banned from public schools. We firmly hope the justices leave well enough alone.

The arguments for the validity of these two controversial words "under God" are varied and strong, as many commentators have already noted. Robert Destro of Catholic University of America presented a fine summary of the political arguments in an amicus curiae br /ief:

All three br /anches of our federal government have long recognized the premise from which Jefferson argued his Declaration of Independence, namely that our freedom is grounded in an authority higher than the State … If reciting the Pledge is unconstitutional simply because it refers to a nation "under God," then reciting the Declaration of Independence, which refers to the Creator as the source of rights, is surely cast in doubt. And that would mean that publicly acknowledging the traditional grounding of our rights itself arguably violates those very rights. That would be an earthquake in our national ethos.

Professor Destro seems mistaken about only one thing: the earthquake happened long ago. It wasn't one big shock, but mini-tremors that over decades created a deep chasm in American life.

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn br /ought this chasm to America's attention in 1978 in his now-famous Harvard commencement address, "A World Split Apart." In the last three centuries, all moral and spiritual limitations, all Christian notions of duty and sacrifice, have slowly been discarded in the West. While we've safeguarded human rights, "man's sense of responsibility to God and society grew dimmer and dimmer … We have lost the concept of a Supreme Complete Entity which used to restrain our passions and our irresponsibility. We have placed too much hope in political and social reforms, only to find out that we were being deprived of our most precious possession: our spiritual life."

The spiritual decline has only accelerated in the 25 years since. We live in a political/economic nexus that not only permits but actually protects those who practice evil. In the slavish and mindless pursuit of liberty, we've ended up with a system that guards the rights of pornographers to commodify sex, of advertisers to entice people to hedonism, of executives to pursue a life of greed, of abortionists to kill innocent human life.

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This is not a godly system, though it is a system under God—or, more precisely, under God's judgment. The prophetic words spoken against Israel long ago are tragically timely: "Ah, sinful nation, people laden with iniquity, offspring who do evil, children who deal corruptly, who have forsaken the Lord … The whole head is sick, and the whole heart faint. From the sole of the foot even to the head, there is no soundness in it, but br /uises and sores and bleeding wounds" (Isa. 1).

Retaining the phrase "under God" is not going to protect "Christian America" from functional secularism. That earthquake has already shaken our nation. But the phrase will continue to signal the source of our liberties, and to whom we stand accountable for the misuse of liberty.

Where's the Leaven?

Despite the nation's severe ills, most American Christians think democratic capitalism is, if not the kingdom of heaven, certainly better than the alternatives. Indeed. Then again, more and more analysts believe classic liberalism is in deep trouble. Yale political science professor Jim Sleeper recently put it this way: "The dilemma is that an all-consuming 'logic' of individual rights, free markets and corporate contracts … can't sustain freedom in a liberal republic. It becomes such a cold tangle of contracts and rights that its freedoms rely ultimately on beliefs and virtues—religious, philosophical, ethno-cultural—that the liberal state itself cannot nurture, much less enforce."

Yet for some, a darker apologetic lurks in the background. So many of us buy into this system because it promises us two things: It keeps government out of our religious lives, and it allows us to enjoy a standard of living—both in our churches and at home—unparalleled in human history. Such benefits are not to be overlooked. But what have we to say to the skeptic who accuses us of spiritual selfishness, of abandoning the culture to the unholy trinity of money, sex, and power so that we can worship the Holy Trinity in peace?

Perhaps, because of our religious freedom, we can leaven a corrupt society, keep evil in check, and maybe even become a catalyst for a national revival. The sweep of American history suggests instead that the church is being leavened by the world.

In the end, whether America is going the way of Lot's Sodom and Gomorrah or Jonah's Nineveh is not for us to know. Our times are in God's hands. Our task is to be faithful in whatever time we find ourselves.

One way of being faithful is to lobby to keep the powerfully symbolic "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance. But success in court only means so much. Some of the most evil regimes in modern history—from 1930s Germany to 1990s Rwanda to 2002 Iraq—firmly believed they were "under God." And it's hardly as if America's moral and spiritual climate has shot up since this phrase was added to the pledge in 1954.

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No, even if this mighty symbol is retained in the pledge, we have much bigger work before us, and the outcome is hardly certain.

Related Elsewhere:

Weblog's coverage of the Pledge controversy includes:

Court Reaffirms Decision Against Pledge's 'Under God' (Dec. 5, 2002)
Anti-'Under God' Atheist Takes on Congressional Chaplains (Aug. 30, 2002)
American Family Association pushes Pledge amendment (July 18, 2002)
Pledge girl's mom: "We love the Lord" (July 16, 2002)
Girl in Pledge Case Is Christian Who Attends Calvary Chapel (July 5, 2002)
Vouchers, Pledge Decisions Spark National Conversation on Church and State (June 28, 2002)

Other CT coverage includes:

Federal Appeals Court Says 'Under God' in Pledge of Allegiance Is Unconstitutional | Schools can't ask children to swear loyalty to monotheism, says Ninth Circuit panel. (June 27, 2002)
Is God an American Institution? | The Ninth Circuit Court's decision is about more than the mention of God in a patriotic ritual, it goes to the heart of the debate about our nation's spiritual heritage. (June 27, 2002)
Books & Culture Corner: The Pledge Controversy | Asking the wrong questions? (July 08, 2002)

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