Sunday, May 1, 2016

Pledge of Allegiance

Sharon Rees

"I pledge allegiance to the Flag of the United States of America, and to the Republic for which it stands, one Nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all."

Does the Pledge join church and state?

In the 1559 Institutes, Calvin seems to lean both right and left concerning church and state. On the one hand, he proclaims civil and spiritual government to be joined (4.20.1), he calls magistrates "vicars of God" (4.20.6), and says, "it is fitting that they [magistrates] should labor to protect and assert the honor of him [God] whose representatives they are, and by whose grace they govern (4.20.9).

On the other hand, Calvin writes that civil government is to protect religion, but not establish it (4.20.3), and freedom is quite high on the list of becoming attributes (4.20.8).

The original Pledge, wrote in 1892 by Francis Bellamy, a Baptist minister, did not contain the words 'under God.' Congress, under President Eisenhower, added the words in 1954, at which time the country was under a (some thought 'godless') communist threat.

There are some who believe that the Pledge does indeed wed church and state, something the First Amendment was put in place to avoid. There are some who believe that 'under God' is not really a religious statement. What do you think?

Does the Pledge promote allegiance to country over allegiance to God?

Although Calvin has sections in the Institutes devoted to deference and obedience to even wicked rulers (4.20.22-30), in the last section Calvin explains the exception - that Christians must never let obedience to rulers lead us away from obedience to God (4.20.32). Peter upholds this view at the Jerusalem Council, "We must obey God rather than any human authority." (Acts 5:29)

There are some who believe that pledging allegiance to the country that protects us is the least we can do. There are some who believe that standing with our hand over our heart and reciting the Pledge is akin to an act of worship not directed toward God. What do you think?

With the challenges to the Pledge of Allegiance coming closer and closer together (see history), I wonder if continuing to defend the Pledge will come dangerously close to using religion as a cudgel, instead of an embrace. To what length should we be willing to go to "reconcile us with one another, and to promote general peace and tranquility," two of Calvin's appointed ends of civil government (4.20.2)?


  1. Sharon - if I understand Calvin's position on this kind of separation, he wants a hard barrier between civic and religious matters. I agree that it's significant that the pledge didn't contain "under God" until 1954. From Calvin's perspective, a pledge to civil obedience might have been fine - UNTIL we incorporate the "Jewish vanity" of legislating faith.
    Without that breach of separation the Pledge is a civic oath - one that supports several Gospel ideals as fundamental to this country's proclaimed belief structure.

  2. Thanks, Sharon, for this discussion on the Pledge of Allegiance. In my childhood, we read the Pledge as, " nation, under God..." This phrasing was called into question in my Scout troop, where we read the Pledge with the comma omitted, as one phrase, " nation under God." This key distinction I think gets at the crux of your question and Calvin's argument: nations are under Godly authority. I think Calvin wants us to remember the underpinnings belong to God, but the details are of little importance. It's about loving God first, then loving neighbor. Thanks again, Sharon.

    1. Wil, as an esteemed professor said, "Commas are important." "Let's eat (comma) Grandma!" To piggyback on Christy's statements below, I do think a well-placed comma could distinguish between religion and providence of God as related to state, but I think the battle will continue for those not willing to acknowledge even providence.

  3. HI Sharon - this was fun to read as I looked at the same material but had a rather different take on it. I am struck by your observation that the pledge could be a seen as a unity of church and state. On the other hand, I can understand Will's point that the two are separate but always under God. I think the distinction here coincides with how one views God. In my blog, I linked a news piece about the attempt to omit "under God" in the pledge as it took away individual freedom of religion. This, of course, implies that the right to not believe in God is in itself a religion. I would argue that "not believing" does not in itself constitute a "belief" and therefore the argument holds no water. Apparently the court agreed with me as no one is not forced to say the pledge thus a stronger argument against non-belief than having God in the pledge.

    I think this is going to continue to be an issue in our country and I am not sure how much energy I will put into this argument as the misunderstanding of "God" is a larger problem for the American public than whether or not God is in our pledge. In other words, I think there are groups that might interpret the words "under God" to be a display of religion in the government which is not how it works, it is rather the acceptance of the reality of God and God's providence working in our lives. In other words, we do not need to prove what "is" but we do need to live it.