If Not “Under God,” then What?

Professor Beckwith reminds us today of a truth that should need no repeating for Americans – but it does today. We’re now living in a time in which God is no longer thought of by many as the source of our freedom, but as a delusion and a limitation on it. Cardinal Dolan was speaking in Washington to the John Carroll Society last week about religious liberty and quoted from one of our esteemed colleague’s column from a few weeks back on that subject. I don’t often toot our horn about the stories told me about the similar ways in which we not only make strong arguments in this space, but influence leaders within the Church as well as outside of it. We have new plans for still more ambitious projects that I’ll be talking about here in the future. But we need your support now to keep The Catholic Thing strong and moving. We’re close to our goal and late in our fund drive. Please become part of our efforts through a generous contribution to our work today. – Robert Royal


The recent scuffle over God’s temporary absence from the Democrat Party’s 2012 platform is a reminder of how the understanding of “God” in certain enclaves of American life has become diminished. His critics have ceased to comprehend the meaning of His absence – or even to understand the role His presence has played in our understanding of our natural rights.

It was in 1954 that the U. S. Congress inserted “under God” into “The Pledge of Allegiance.” Although uncontroversial at the time, the phrase has become a point of contention in recent years.

In the 2002 case of Newdow v. Elk Grove School District, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals held that the public school recitation of the Pledge violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment because “the text of the official Pledge, codified in federal law, impermissibly takes a position with respect to the purely religious question of the existence and identity of God.”

The U. S. Supreme Court overturned the Ninth Circuit’s decision, but only on a technicality: Michael Newdow, the parent who had brought the suit on behalf of his public school student daughter, did not have standing to file suit because he did not have legal custody of his daughter. Although three justices had argued that the recitation of the Pledge with the words  “under God” did not run afoul of the Constitution, the Court’s holding did not address that question.  

What stands out about the controlling opinions of both courts is how little care they take in understanding the primary reason why the 1954 Congress amended the Pledge. Here’s what the 1954 Congressional Record states (as quoted in the Ninth Circuit’s opinion):

At this moment of our history the principles underlying our American Government and the American way of life are under attack by a system whose philosophy is at direct odds with our own. Our American Government is founded on the concept of the individuality and the dignity of the human being.  Underlying this concept is the belief that the human person is important because he was created by God and endowed by Him with certain inalienable rights which no civil authority may usurp.  The inclusion of God in our pledge therefore would further acknowledge the dependence of our people and our Government upon the moral directions of the Creator.  At the same time it would serve to deny the atheistic and materialistic concepts of communism with its attendant subservience of the individual.

The Ninth Circuit, though it acknowledged this reasoning, does not take it very seriously. As we have already seen, it dismissed any appeal to God to account for any contingent reality – in this case, human rights and dignity – as merely an answer to a “purely religious question.”

Justice John Paul Stevens, who wrote the Supreme Court’s controlling opinion, does not even quote from this passage, but from another portion of the 1954 Congressional Record that suggests that “under God” in the Pledge is more about the country’s long tradition of believing in God rather than the reality of God as the guarantor of our natural rights: “[f]rom the time of our earliest history our peoples and our institutions have reflected the traditional concept that our Nation was founded on a fundamental belief in God.”

But the whole point of inserting “under God” in the Pledge was neither “religious” nor an appeal to “tradition.” It was to address the philosophical claim that our natural rights, grounded in the natural law, are imparted to us by an Eternal Lawgiver, and how that claim differs from the understanding of rights embraced by a government, the Soviet Union, committed to atheistic materialism.  

Thus, the question that the 1954 Congress was answering was no more a “religious question” or a matter of historical observation than was the grounding of the Thirteenth Amendment’s prohibition on involuntary servitude purely the result of a change in national labor policy.

For the 1954 Congress, as for most ordinary Americans, whether one’s natural rights issue from an Eternal Lawgiver or from a state with no higher authority than itself and its will, makes all the difference between a limited government constrained by moral principles it did not invent and a government based on nothing more than its own power to stipulate whatever ends it desires. It is the difference between liberty and tyranny.

Francis J. Beckwith is Professor of Philosophy & Church-State Studies, Baylor University, and 2016-17 Visiting Professor of Conservative Thought and Policy at the University of Colorado, Boulder. Among his many books is Taking Rites Seriously: Law, Politics, and the Reasonableness of Faith (Cambridge University Press, 2015).