We have all recited – or listened as others recited – the pledge of allegiance to the flag of the United States of America and to the Republic for which it stands. In most cases we have either said, or listened to it said, incorrectly. For some reason a comma is always inserted in the phrase “one nation under God”, creating two separate phrases of “one nation” and “under God”.
Maybe the pause helps large groups stay in sync while reciting the pledge together. Maybe everyone just needs to pause for an additional breath. Whatever the reason for the pause and the implied comma, it creates a wrong impression.
A Princeton history professor recently published a book promoted as revealing how capitalists in the early 20th century created the myth of America as Christian nation in order to combat the New Deal and communism. The book naturally received rave reviews from progressives and liberals who believe it delivers incontestable proof the religious right makes unjustifiable claims on the roots of American tradition.
Left-leaning arguments always point out the pledge was not adopted until the late nineteenth century, and the words “under God” were not added until the early 1950s. Their contention seems to be the pledge and the inclusion of God prove some sort of attempt at a theocratic conspiracy or some form of capitalist propaganda to fool the masses into rejecting socialism as demonic. America is not a Christian nation, they insist. It never has been and never will be – at least not if they have their way.
Some minds are so open they can’t hold a sensible thought.
Of course the issue of America’s founding as a Christian nation did not become an issue until the early twentieth century. It was not until the early twentieth century communism became a threat to the American political and economic system. Communism, for those who are unaware, comes with its own religion – secular atheism. Under communism, belief in God would no longer be necessary. Religion was, after all, simply the “opium of the people”, used to dull the pain of capitalist oppression.
The reason for the emphasis on America’s foundation as a Christian nation actually did have much to do with combating communism, but it was no convenient myth – it was a truth which needed to be reasserted.
Which brings me back to “one nation under God” versus “one nation, under God”. We are not “one nation” which is “under God” as implied when we recite the Pledge with the unintended comma. Do you think this means we are under God’s guidance? Under God’s protection? Perhaps you think we are invoking God’s mercy? If so, the Pledge would be a prayer, and blatantly unconstitutional.
The phrase “one nation under God”, without the comma, emphasizes it is through God we are one people. Through our shared belief in a Creator through whom we are endowed with unalienable rights, we have become one people. It is only through belief in a Creator we can claim to have unalienable rights. Don’t take my word for it, read Aristotle’s politics. Thomas Jefferson undoubtedly did.
But it goes deeper. Aristotle did not reckon on a personal God, a deity who took an active interest in human affairs. While ancient Greeks might have argued for the intrinsic rights of humans in general to explain, for instance, why murder was immoral (you didn’t make it; you can’t break it), Christianity was the first to assert the dignity of each individual human being.
The claim each individual has a right to liberty, the claim each individual has the right to the pursuit of happiness – these are Christian claims. They are the legacy of a Medieval Christianity which sought to understand the gospel and limit the powers of government.
This legacy – our legacy – provided the foundation on which our Founding Fathers forged a new nation dedicated to the proposition all men are created equal and are endowed with rights no government may infringe. Every time we recite the words “one nation under God” we commemorate the source of our unity and pledge ourselves to passing this legacy on to the next generation.
What a difference a misplaced comma can make.