If the U.S. Supreme Court decides later this month to strike the phrase "under God" from the Pledge of Allegiance, America could be in for a rhetorical facelift. Not only will millions of schoolchildren cease reciting the Pledge known by their parents and grandparents, but other American symbols would also appear to be on the way out. "In God We Trust" no longer.

Of course, the Supreme Court may choose to side with the overwhelming majority of Americans, who want the Supreme Court to preserve the Pledge with "under God." When the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals struck the phrase in 2002, their decision sparked widespread public outrage. Politicians voiced their indignation, while religious leaders decried the ongoing secularization of America.

As usual, some historical perspective can help us think about this issue.

Judging by the public reaction, one would think George Washington or Abraham Lincoln penned the Pledge. Actually "under God" first appeared in the Pledge as a Cold War-era addition. But the history of this phrase extends back to the nation's birth. And during the Civil War, these two words comforted a nation unsure whether their experiment with democracy would succeed. Nevertheless, is it possible that a seeming Supreme Court victory could actually be a defeat in disguise?

Columbus Day Composition

The Pledge of Allegiance made its debut in 1892 when Massachusetts educator and Baptist minister Francis Bellamy authored the oath for Columbus Day festivities. Celebrating the 400th anniversary of the explorer's landing in America, schoolchildren around the nation recited the Pledge: "I pledge allegiance to my flag, and to the Republic for which it stands, one nation indivisible, with liberty and justice for all."

This first version of the Pledge reflects the lingering effects of the Civil War, from which the nation was still recovering. Bellamy's oath stresses the inseparable Union and ideal of fair treatment of all citizens regardless of race. Near the end of the 19th century these concerns persisted as immigrants streamed into America from around the world. The Pledge underwent a small revision in 1924 to clarify that Americans pledged their allegiance to "the flag of the United States of America."

The Pledge did not change again until 1954, when Congress approved the addition of "under God." This was the era of America's Cold War stand-off against the aggressively atheistic Soviet Union. Americans wholeheartedly supported the change in the same spirit that led them, two years later, to approve "In God We Trust" as the national motto.

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Partly spurred by Cold War uncertainties, Americans flocked to church during the 1950s, fueling a boom for Protestant and Catholic churches alike. After more than two decades of uncommon upheaval at home and abroad, many sought God's comfort. As he approved the Pledge alteration, President Eisenhower echoed these concerns. "In this way we are reaffirming the transcendence of religious faith in America's heritage and future," he said. "In this way we shall constantly strengthen those spiritual weapons which forever will be our country's most powerful resource in peace and war."

Appealing to God for Independence, Preservation

Congress reached into American history for "under God." In the throes of the Revolution, George Washington had spurred his troops to victory by invoking God's provision. As the Continental Congress prepared to ratify the Declaration of Independence in the summer of 1776, with British troops gathering on their doorstep, Washington made the stakes clear to his army. "The time is now near at hand which must probably determine whether Americans are to be freemen or slaves," he told the troops. "The fate of unborn millions will now depend, under God, on the courage and conduct of the army."

But the phrase gained universal notoriety during a later, equally precarious period of American history. Following the deadliest battle of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln delivered our nation's most memorable speech—the Gettysburg Address. "Under God" did not appear in Lincoln's early drafts of the speech, but it surfaced in the spoken version:

"It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to the cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion; that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain; that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom; and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth."

Lincoln never clarified the precise meaning of "under God," but presumably he meant to convey America's dependence on God and submission to God's expectations for justice. Especially late in his life, Lincoln did shy away from discerning God's earthly purposes. In his second inaugural address, Lincoln pointed to the sin of slavery and said God gave "to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came."

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Yet Lincoln had additional motivations for invoking the Almighty. Deeply saddened by the war's devastation, he worked to ensure that America would never again think of separation. Lincoln believed that if he could foster a civil religion, Americans would consider their nation to be sacred and thus indissoluble.

Beyond the Pledge

Lincoln's vision for civic religion should give Christians pause. Even if the Supreme Court retains "under God," the justices will do so only if they determine the phrase bears no genuine religious meaning. In other words, either "under God" serves to perpetuate American civil religion, or the phrase will be removed.

Christians have no interest promoting civil religion. America-worship is but a shadow of citizenship in heaven. When government co-opts religion in this way, genuine religious belief is cheapened. But if civil religion demeans Christianity, does God have a place in democracy?

More important than defending a phrase, Christians can revive the true meaning of "under God." They can elect public officials who acknowledge and submit to God's standards of justice in their decision-making. And they can help renew America's commitment to "liberty for all," because only "under God" are all men created equal. In secular and religious ideologies that reward human effort, men are anything but equal. Human equality is only possible when God lays low human divisions and renders null our uneven attempts to earn our way to heaven on earth or above.

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Christian History Corner, a weekly column from Christian History & Biography, appears every Friday on Christianity Today's website. Previous editions include:

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