Is "One Nation Under God" Merely a Knick-Knack?

by Dr. Graham Walker
August 6, 2010

Dr. Graham Walker in 1988 received the Edward S. Corwin Award from the American Political Science Association for the best dissertation in the nation in the field of public law. His first book, The Ethics of F.A. Hayek, was published in 1986. His second book, Moral Foundations of Constitutional Thought, was published in 1990. He has served as PHC's President since 2006. 

“One nation under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance.  “In God We Trust” on our coins and bills.  The Ten Commandments posted on schoolroom walls, in courthouses, and in the great bas-relief at the U.S. Supreme Court building.  Prayers to God “in Jesus’ name” by student leaders at high school graduations and football games.   The “Mount Soledad Cross” erected on public land above San Diego.

These sorts of symbolic affirmations of faith create public controversy.  The American Civil Liberties Union, together with other secularist advocacy groups, has attacked such symbols as a violation of the First Amendment.  On the other side, the American Center for Law and Justice and the Alliance Defense Fund, among others, have defended them vigorously.

Ordinary American Christians -- who obviously “trust in God” themselves, and believe in prayer and the Ten Commandments -- wonder what to make of it all.  Many are uncomfortable with the publicity surrounding cases that are fought in the media as much as in the courtroom.  They get weary of disputes that spill over into water-cooler talk at work and dinner table talk at home.

So are these things worth fighting for?  More basically, are they even worth agreeing with in the first place?

These are good questions.  To answer them requires getting clear about four facts that are often overlooked.

First, the reason these public symbols exist is not because right-wing activists have suddenly launched an effort to force faith down people’s throats.  There is nothing new about them.  The Continental Congress, which declared American independence 234 years ago, frequently and officially called Americans to days of fasting and prayer to God, asking “God, through the merits of Jesus Christ, mercifully to forgive” (1777).  The First Congress, which established the Bill of Rights, celebrated the enactment of this historic document with a proclamation urging Americans to thank God for it (1791).  Like other presidents before and after, James Madison issued a proclamation advising Americans to offer their “adorations to Almighty God” while “seeking His merciful forgiveness” (1812).  He did this in his official capacity as President, not merely as a private individual.  James Madison was not a right-wing Christian activist.  (For details I recommend James Hutson’s study, Religion and the Founding of the American Republic, Washington, D.C.: Library of Congress, 1998.)

In other words, if our public faith symbols are controversial, it is not because they are new but because a highly-motivated set of secularist activists set out to eliminate them, starting about 40 years ago.

Second, these public affirmations of faith are not coercive.  They exert public influence without public coercion.  James Madison was comfortable with this sort of thing, even at the federal level, precisely because they conveyed symbolism without compulsion.

Christian citizens should care about such symbolic influence because they should care about the common good and the “general Welfare” of our Constitution’s Preamble.  They should care because God calls us to “love our neighbor.” A public sphere devoid of reverence for God is a dangerous place.  When masses of people no longer feel that they are accountable to a higher moral power, they become capricious and tyrannical with each other, and this inevitably affects law and government.  By contrast, the Bible says, “Blessed is the people whose God is the Lord” (Psalm 144:15).

A few years ago, conservative Christian commentator Joel Belz dismissed Christian concern for symbols like “Under God” and “In God We Trust,” calling them mere “knick-knacks of civil religion” (World Magazine, November 1, 2003).  But Belz’s dismissal was short-sighted.  God created man to live by truth and to organize his life by the symbols of truth.  Symbols are more potent than laws, precisely because their influence is non-coercive.  Moreover, the absence of Christian symbols does not produce a public sphere devoid of spiritual symbols. It simply sets up anti-Christian symbols.  A glance at contemporary culture confirms this.  The realm of the spirit abhors a vacuum just as much as nature does.

Third, it’s important to understand religious liberty in relation to these symbols.  Some Christians argue that the elimination of these symbols is a threat to religious liberty.  This is true, but only indirectly.  At present, the legal attack on public symbols of faith is not precisely an attack on the freedom of individuals to express their faith.  Most of the relevant litigation hangs on the secularist legal argument that faith is something that individuals, and only individuals, may freely express.  Thus, the Mount Soledad Cross still stands because the land on which it was erected was transferred from public to private ownership.  We affirm the religious freedom of private individuals, while repudiating the freedom of organized communities to affirm a common faith. This is a Pyrrhic victory.

This kind of “solution” teaches Americans that faith is only meaningful as a private feeling and has no universal significance for everyone.  This makes religious relativism the official symbolic position of American government.  One symbol system has replaced another.  And this kind of “solution” applied retrospectively would turn all our early American Presidents and Congresses into lawbreakers.

Finally, controversy about public religious symbols is an inescapable element of human political life.  This is true no matter what system you live under.  Part of the genius of the American Constitution is that its complex jurisdiction allows for a variety of solutions to such controversies.

National coinage with a national, non-coercive faith motto is obviously a national matter.  But most of the detailed disputes about publicly-affirmed faith occur at the state and local levels.  The beauty of American constitutionalism is not that it mechanically applies one formula to every governmentally-related entity, but rather that it recognizes different democratically-constituted, decision-making authorities.

If we followed the Constitution, for example, local school boards elected by local parents, overseeing local community schools, would decide whether to post the Ten Commandments on the bulletin board, and whether to allow prayer at graduations.  Local counties accountable to local voters would decide whether to erect crosses on hillsides in public parks.  Neither these entities nor the fifty states themselves are mere appendages of the federal government.  According to the Tenth Amendment, these local entities retain powers not specifically given to the central government, and their jurisdictions, if allowed to operate as intended, could resolve some of our most difficult disputes over public faith symbols.

The American Constitution has a wisely complex system of jurisdiction because it aims to protect, as its Preamble says, both “the general Welfare” and “the Blessings of Liberty” enjoyed by individuals -- not just one or the other. This is not paradoxical, and especially not when it comes to religious liberty.  Thomas Jefferson said that “our liberties are the gift of God.”  The religious liberties of individuals are jeopardized when people come to believe that they are not the gift of God.  Non-coercive public affirmation of faith in God thus makes religious liberty more secure.

God’s gifts are inviolable.  But they are not inviolable to people who think He does not exist.