What does it mean to be “under God”?

I remember reciting the Pledge of Allegiance every day at the start of the school day at New Meadow Elementary School. After the pledge, we all sang “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee,” and I’m not sure how old I was before I realized that the third word was not “tizuvthee.” I really didn’t give much thought to the meaning of the words of either the pledge or the song. They were just part of the daily routine, like getting dressed or walking to school.

I’m pretty sure one teacher did make sure we knew what some of the big words meant. “Republic” was a word for our country. “Indivisible” meant that the country couldn’t be split up (which just reinforced my impression that the distinctions between different states were not very important). We probably talked about the meaning of “liberty” and “justice,” but I don’t remember any teacher ever saying a thing about the phrase “under God.”

I don’t know if that was because they were afraid to broach a subject that might generate complaints about church-state separation, or if they simply took it for granted that we knew what the phrase meant. They had all grown up when prayer and Bible reading were still common in public schools, and virtually everyone could be assumed to belong to some branch or other of the Judeo-Christian tradition. I imagine that most of the students, like me, also took it for granted. Whatever “under God” meant, it was, like being an American, simply part of how things were for ourselves and everyone we knew.

My 10-year-old son is growing up in a world that is different in many ways from the one I grew up in. But I get the idea that the Pledge of Allegiance is something he says every morning without thinking much about it, just as I did. As a part of earning his Webelos badge, we are starting to work on the Citizenship requirement, and one activity is reciting the Pledge and putting it in his own words. The first part is simple; the second has him at a loss what to say.

I looked in the Webelos handbook for ideas how to explain it at a ten-year-old level. (Now I have to figure out how to get these ideas across without him simply memorizing the ten-year-old wording but perhaps still not really understanding their significance.) Most of the phrases are fine, but I was very surprised at the suggested explanation for “one nation, under God.” The handbook says that this means “a single country whose people believe in religious freedom” (emphasis added).

I don’t know if that surprises you as much as it did me. If that were the commonly accepted meaning of the phrase, there would be no reason for atheists to object to schoolchildren being required to say it. The fact that the generic word God is used, rather than one specific to the Christian (or any other) religion, might be seen as evidence that we do have freedom to choose our religion. But it’s hard to interpret the words “under God” as meaning that we have the freedom to reject the notion of God altogether (which true religious freedom must allow).

From what I have read of history, it seems to have been a common assumption for most of human history that religion – any religion – promoted morality, while atheism left a person free to commit any sort of atrocity because there was no fear of divine judgment. From what I have read on worldmagblog, that argument continues to be used today as a reason to reject atheism – despite the insistence of atheists that unbelief in the supernatural does not preclude living by a set of morals similar to those of religious people.

Others point out that, absent belief in a divine lawgiver, morality is arbitrary (and moreover that it is meaningless, as is life itself, unless there is a transcendant God who gives meaning to our lives). Even if atheists today live by a good moral code, they are seen as living off the spiritual capital that generations of Christian believers have bestowed on our society. The fear is that, if their ideas prevail, future generations will see less and less reason to do good according to the Christian perspective.

I’m not convinced that the same issues would not arise, however, in a society where everyone was a religious believer but the content of that belief could vary widely. The accusations traded between many conservative Christians and “fundamentalist” Muslims, as to the immoral behavior of the other party, is evidence that belief in divine judgment hardly assures a shared moral code.

So do the words “under God” in our Pledge mean anything useful? This is a good article (you may need to scroll down to see the article) exploring both the meaning of the phrase and its likely origins. I’m sure I had no idea, as a girl, any more than my fourth grade son has today, that the controversial phrase came from Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. And since schools no longer require students to memorize great speeches such as the Gettysburg Address, the words and phrases that once made up a shared national vocabulary no longer hold the same significance for us.

Without knowing this background, I would never had connected the phrase to the idea of being under God’s judgment. I don’t think I associated it with God’s protection either. I suppose I might have said that it meant needing to obey God’s laws (e.g. the Ten Commandments – although like many Christians I can’t point to any consistent habits of Sabbath-keeping). Or perhaps I simply thought of it as meaning that the highest authority is not the government, but God. Therefore the government has no right to enact a law that would require me to disobey the law of God.

So which of these meanings do I try to teach my son? Do I mention all of them, and see which one he remembers (probably an indication he understands it)? From this article, it appears that early in the history of Boy Scouts, religious duty was pretty much equivalent to good moral behavior. On that basis, being a nation under God would mean simply recognizing and living by the moral laws of a Supreme Being, without any particular concern as to the identity of that deity.

If nothing else, this should lead to a thought-provoking discussion with my son.

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4 Responses to What does it mean to be “under God”?

  1. modestypress says:

    I suspect that “morality” is the product of physical evolution and cultural evolution.

    For example, sociobiology theory indicates that we are driven to reproduce. Obviously, this accounts for our enormous sex drive, but it also may account for the tendency of most people to care for and about children.

    Most cultures try to prohibit murder. Humans have a capacity called “empathy.” I would not like to be killed. I would not like somebody close to me to be murdered. Although I have had insticts of wanting to kill people, I am somewhat reluctant to do so without a really good reason.

    A society with no barriers against murder would probably be at a disadvantage in competing with other societies.

  2. David Tarvin says:

    Thank you for writing this article.

    My name is David Tarvin and I’m a college student at Fresno City College.

    I’m writing a paper that argue weather or not there should be complete separation of state. One of the things I was going to mention was the Pledge of the Allegiance, and I was wondering what the term Under God meant. But I got more out your article then just that and some idea of where to go with me paper.

    If you like I will send you a copy after, I am done.
    Great article and I hope to hear from you soon.

    David Tarvin

    • Pauline says:

      David,
      I’d be happy to read a copy of your paper. One reason I like blogs is to get an idea of the views of people I would never meet in person.

  3. Very nice post. I just stumbled upon your blog and wanted to say
    that I have really enjoyed browsing your blog posts.
    In any case I will be subscribing to your feed and I hope you write again soon!

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