Last week's Pledge of Allegiance debate reaffirmed at least one political lesson: While elected officials usually try not to offend anyone, there's one group no one worries about alienating atheists who believe in the nation, though not a deity.
Witness the bipartisan chorus of "God Bless America" by Washington lawmakers after a federal appeals court declared the pledge unconstitutional because it includes the words "under God." The Senate voted 99-0 to appeal the case, though its alacrity turned out to be unnecessary since the ruling was put on hold last week.
"The deck is stacked," says Richard Cheek, an atheist from Fullerton, Calif. "You're considered an outcast and not a true American."
Religion always has been integral to American culture. But only in the past half-century, with many Americans feeling threatened by communism and scientific secularism, has God taken on greater prominence in government. "Under God" in the pledge and "In God We Trust" on our currency are both products of the 1950s, a Cold War defense.
Certainly we've become more religiously tolerant in the past 50 years. A Catholic was elected president. A Jewish senator was almost elected vice president. And Bush reached out to Muslim-Americans after the Sept. 11 attacks. But, in that same time, a nondenominational God has become so fundamental to our political discourse that nonbelievers who make up anywhere from 5 to 18 percent of the population, depending on the poll say they have no voice. Freedom of religion means that it doesn't matter which monotheism you subscribe to as long as you pick one, Cheek says.
Tradition, not law
Defenders of "under God" like to argue that the Founding Fathers didn't intend for God to be absent from political discourse. But that may be overstating the case. In "Religion in the Development of American Culture 1765-1840," author William Warren Sweet, a respected Protestant academic, points out that one of the first clauses proposed for the Constitution was that no religious tests or qualifications be attached to oaths of office.
There was little debate, Sweet notes. And when Benjamin Franklin, who took a religious view of the United States as "the light of the world," proposed that the Constitutional Convention open with a daily prayer, he was rebuffed.
Most of the religious practices associated with government today are products of tradition, not law. The president isn't required to utter the oath of office with his hand on a Bible; but every president has. The presidential oath doesn't include the phrase "so help me God." That phrase endured after George Washington said it during his swearing in.
As for the First Amendment "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof ...," the nuances of its wording are argued to this day. Some modern judges think the amendment just prohibits the government from promoting one religion over another and doesn't require it to stay out of religion completely. That was part of the Supreme Court's rationale last week for upholding school vouchers.
While the United States was founded in part by groups fleeing religious persecution, it was exactly because of that persecution that they wanted to separate government from God, Sweet writes. The English Puritans proposed a distinction between the "realm of nature" and the "realm of grace," much as Jesus taught: "Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's and unto God the things that are God's."
Yet throughout American history, especially in times of war, amendments have been proposed to make the United States an officially Christian nation. After the Civil War, a group lobbied for a rewriting of the preamble to the Constitution, "humbly acknowledging Almighty God as the source of all authority and power in civil government, the Lord Jesus Christ as the Ruler among the nations" and "His revealed will as the supreme law of the land, in order to constitute a Christian government."
That measure was defeated, but less-radical changes were embraced in the '50s by a nation fearing communism.
In historical context
The Pledge of Allegiance, written by a socialist named Francis Bellamy in 1892 for a children's magazine, was altered to include "under God" in 1954.
Court decisions, meanwhile, have allowed the use of certain Christian symbols in government by ruling that they have essentially lost their religious meanings. In 1985, the Supreme Court decided, 5-4, to allow a Rhode Island city to display a nativity scene during Christmas. The majority said it was a form of ceremonial deism that, "through rote repetition," has lost any significant religious content.
Christian symbols are part of our heritage, says Marvin Meyers, professor of religious studies at Chapman University. There are numerous symbols on the dollar, for instance, related to all sorts of mythologies and traditions.
"We have to see these things in historical context," he says. "This is part of our history. No one is required to believe; we're not trying to force any conversion. These words need not be destructive."
But what worries some atheists is not so much the two words in the pledge, but the reaction when it's suggested that they be removed. Though monotheists are far and away this nation's majority, religious leaders often act as if they are under siege, says Ryan Anderson, co-founder of the United Freethought Coalition, an Orange County, Calif., organization that promotes religious tolerance.
"I have no problem with a politician maintaining a strong, public belief in a particular faith," Anderson says. "But when that belief begins to manifest itself in political action, I become concerned."
There's a prejudice against atheists in America because they are thought to lack morals, Anderson says. When the elder President Bush was asked about them in 1987, he said: "I don't know that atheists should be considered as citizens, nor should they be considered patriots. This is one nation under God."
"The trouble is that's the view many people have and many have expressed to me," Anderson says. "As an atheistic agnostic, I hold no belief in God, yet my morals and outlook on life are just as bright and solid as the most devout Christian. Like many atheists, I love this country dearly, and we do often find ourselves arguing that a belief in the Constitution, in democracy and in our freedoms has nothing to do with God."