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.

We learned the words in grade school, hands over our hearts, eyes trained on the red, white and blue. We were told to stand at attention, remembering all those who fought and died for our freedoms. As we grew older, we recited the words by rote.

Now a California appeals court is forcing us to pay closer attention to the Pledge of Allegiance and the oath we're asking Americans—particularly school-aged Americans—to observe.

Published in 1892 as a patriotic salute for schoolchildren, the Pledge of Allegiance went through several slight revisions before Congress made it official in 1942. One year later, the U.S. Supreme Court made it a voluntary pledge for schoolchildren.

By 1954, when the words "under God" were tacked onto it, the country was in turmoil. It was the Cold War era, and anti-Communist sentiment was at its height. Americans viewed the Soviet Union as a godless monster. In the heat of the politics of the day, President Dwight D. Eisenhower, recognizing the nation's need for a Supreme Being to provide strength and comfort, remarked, "In this way we are reaffirming the transcendence of religious faith in America's heritage and future; in this way we shall constantly strengthen those spiritual weapons which forever will be our country's most powerful resource in peace and war."

But 50 years later, our world is still in turmoil, with terrorism threatening our security and sense of well-being. Yet the effort to acknowledge the nation's Judeo-Christian roots remains an uphill struggle. And the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals' 2-1 ruling that the Pledge of Allegiance is unconstitutional because it acknowledges that we are "one nation under God" is the latest challenge.

The ruling has shock value, but surely this can't be a surprise to many people. It has been a long time coming, one more step in a series of efforts to remove religion from public life.

We've traveled a long and winding road since the America of "God, apple pie and the American dream." The U.S. Supreme Court removed prayer from public schools in the early '60s. Time magazine went so far as to declare on its cover that God was dead in 1966. Now, Ten Commandments plaques are being torn down from courthouses across the country. And separationist groups continue to be on the warpath to cleanse our society of any mention of God.

Yet this particular Pledge of Allegiance case, arising out of one parent's belief that his child should not have to listen to her classmates voluntarily recite the pledge, is about more than the mention of God in a patriotic ritual. It goes to the heart of the debate about our nation's spiritual heritage—and its future.

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This country has been traveling a wandering path around the issue of religion for some time now. We're a society desperately searching for an identity—at least a spiritual one—and we're on the verge of a nervous breakdown. But the American people can provide the cure, if only they will decide once and for all what they want this country to be.

If we want to recognize that this is a country with a Judeo-Christian heritage, that our Founding Fathers built our nation—and our laws—on a religious foundation, then our laws and institutions should reflect that.

The Declaration of Independence states in no uncertain terms that our rights come from God—that men are "endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." In a sense, the basic framework of our country has grown out of this concept of God-centered rights. But take God out of the equation, as so many have tried to do, and we are left with a nation whose freedoms stem from nothing more than the whims of those in power—a concept the framers of our Constitution abhorred.

The Founding Fathers put their lives on the line for the freedoms enshrined in our Constitution because they believed they had an innate and God-given right to the freedoms of speech, religion, assembly, etc.

Yet the faith of our fathers is far different from the watered-down, politically correct rhetoric offered up as religion today. So this ruling should surprise no one. Perhaps the court was only stating a truth we have come to understand and refused to admit: that this is not one nation under one God but one nation under many gods.

This decision challenges our national identity, our spiritual heritage and the validation of our innate rights. But in today's diverse society, it is a legitimate challenge that must be debated and decided.

We know our past: it is the history of people escaping persecution, fleeing to a new land primarily in search of religious freedom.

We know our present: it is the unfolding story of a nation still coming to terms with who and what she is and who and what she stands for.

What we do not know, however, is our future. That remains to be decided.

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John W. Whitehead is founder and president of The Rutherford Institute and author of Grasping for the Wind.

Related Elsewhere

Also appearing on our site today:

Federal Appeals Court Says 'Under God' in Pledge of Allegiance is Unconstitutional | Schools can't ask children to swear loyalty to monotheism, says Ninth Circuit panel.

Visit The Rutherford Institute online.

More coverage of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals' decision is available from The New York Times, The Chicago Tribune, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, The Dallas Morning News, The Boston Globe, The San Francisco Chronicle, Law.com, USA Today, and the Associated Press.

"The sort of rigid overreaction that characterized [yesterday's decision] will not make genuine defense of the First Amendment any easier," The New York Times editorializes today.

"We believe in strict separation between church and state, but the pledge is hardly a particular danger spot crying out for judicial policing," says The Washington Post. The ruling "can also invite a reversal, and that could mean establishing a precedent that sanctions a broader range of official religious expression than the pledge itself."

"For all the overheated and dire predictions … the 'under God' phrase has in no way led to establishment of an official state religion," argues the Los Angeles Times. "Thus the 9th Circuit decision is a cure without an ailment."

"Does this country really want to reach the point where every mention of religion needs to be eliminated in the name of constitutional purity?" asked the San Francisco Chronicle.

Other opinions are available from The Washington Post's Marc Fisher and National Review Online's Victor Davis Hanson and Jack Dunphy.