The Pledge of Allegiance and The Will of the People

Tom Morris

Note to readers: In a conversation on politics, an individual I met not long ago, who was running for a prominent national office (successfully, as it turned out), asked me to write down my views on the controversy that arises now and then over The Pledge of Allegiance. What follows are the brief few paragraphs I jotted down. I am posting it here because some friends have told me that it has helped them think through some of the issues involved.

Thomas Jefferson once wrote, "The will of the people is the only legitimate foundation for any government, and to protect its free expression should be our first object." (Letter to Benjamin Waring, March 1801)

The current controversy over The Pledge of Allegiance has made clear what the will of the people is regarding this public expression of patriotism. Most living Americans join our eighteenth century founders in the desire to pledge our loyalty to our country as one nation "under God." This country was settled by people who believed in God, and sought to serve God, and, according to every survey I've seen, it's still inhabited mainly by individuals with that same belief and desire.

If you read any of the early documents of the nation, beginning with The Declaration of Independence, you see from the start a continuing acknowledgement of, and expressions of reliance on, divine providence. And this wasn't just a formal nicety. The whole intellectual backdrop of our case for freedom involved a firm belief in the existence and activity of a personal creator who has endowed each of us with certain capacities and rights that any government must respect. Mention of God was never just a ceremonial add-on, a theological flourish unrelated to the core of what the founders were about. It was the non-negotiable basis for the claims that distinctively launched our national enterprise.

While granting that not every founder was equally religious - Jefferson himself is a prime example of a spiritually reticent individual - it is clearly the case that the will of the people at the birth of our nation was to recognize and honor a divinity over us all.

The will of the founders was also to create in America a society that would provide for a religious freedom for all our people. That involved, and continues to involve, a freedom on the part of any individual to worship and serve God in any way they see fit, compatible with other laws of the land. Accommodating this freedom is the constitutional prohibition on any possible government attempt to certify or establish a particular religious institution or structure as mandatory for everyone to follow. The founders did not want there ever to be an organized, institutional religious power structure that could threaten civil government and coerce free people. It was such threats and coercion that they had come to our shores to flee. But there was no judgment that the deity should never be mentioned in public.

The recent lawsuit seeking to have the phrase "under God" removed from the Pledge of Allegiance, or else to have any public use of the Pledge containing this phrase, in the context of government institutions like schools, ruled unconstitutional, is based on a misconception of the founders' concerns and a misunderstanding of the constitution.

It was never a concern of the founders to disallow religious expression, or to remove all reference to God from official proclamations, documents, and rituals. Nor was it their concern to keep government from using and endorsing any expressions of patriotic loyalty that might make reference to God. Their frequent references to divine providence in official documents, as well as personal correspondence, show quite the opposite concern. When Jefferson himself neglected to give prominent enough mention of the Almighty in his draft of The Declaration of Independence, other members of the Constitutional Congress insisted that it be added.

A person living in America has a right not to believe that there is a God, remaining in a state of cosmic doubt known as agnosticism, or to believe positively that there is no such being, holding forth as an atheist instead. No act of congress or edict of any government body will coerce anyone to think otherwise. If an agnostic or atheist is uncomfortable with what seems to be the general will of the people in contemporary America, and with its free expression in The Pledge of Allegiance, that person has a right to protest, to express his discomfort, or, finally, to find living circumstances better suited to his sensibilities. What he has no right to do is to prevent the rest of us from expressing the sentiments on which this nation was founded, in a public and officially sanctioned way.

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