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One Nation Under God

There are two narratives about the founding of our nation. Which one most resonates with your mind and soul may well determine how you respond to the recent court decision about the Pledge of Allegiance.

Narrative number one goes something like this:

Long ago, Europe and England were inhospitable to religious freedom. Wars of religion had racked the continent and things were not much better on the English isle.

Those who sought a purified form of Christian worship were not welcomed by the established church. They set sail seeking a place to practice religion according to the dictates of their own conscience. They boarded ships like the Mayflower bound for the New World, determined to be forever free of those who pressed upon the populace their own ideas of faith and practice.

Thus was born the great experiment in religious liberty, later enshrined in the Bill of Rights. It eventually took structured form as the separation of church and state.

It is a noble narrative, and a true one. It is much needed in the world today, where religious violence is rampant and religious freedom is rare.

But there is another narrative, and it goes something like this:

Long ago, Christian people sensed a call of God to abandon their homes in England and create a community on this continent. They sought a city that would embody the very truth of Christ and practice the virtues of the Spirit.

John Winthrop, the governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, even termed it “a city set on the hill” (invoking the words of Jesus himself).

From this hill of hope, the bright light of God’s gospel would shine over all the land, dispelling the darkness of sin, superstition and pseudo-religion of all kinds—and do so in such as way as to influence what was done throughout the world.

In this way, the epicenter of Christian life and thought shifted away from the Old World to the New. It became a reality alluded to in later documents that grounded our life, liberty and happiness upon the kind providence of the Creator.

It also is a noble narrative, and a true one. In a world increasingly secular and among a population either indifferent or outright hostile to Christian things, it also refreshes the soul.

Schoolchildren stand at the intersection of these two stories about who we are as a nation. Every morning they face the flag of a good and mighty nation and recite a pledge of allegiance:

“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.”

It is not the pledge my father said growing up in Daviess County, Kentucky. His was the original, the one written and promulgated long before his birth by the minister from upstate New York.

When I was just a baby, when the country was fearful of atheistic communism, our elected leaders in Washington added the phrase familiar to us, the two words that have become so formidable an issue before the federal bench.

“Under God.”

Does this simple phrase define who we are and who we were meant to be? Is it a fitting title to the narrative that tells the story of our country? In its expression of religious vision, does it gather up the great ideas and commitments that constitute our national identity?

Or does it undermine who we are and who we are meant to be? Does it subvert the story that tells the truth of our past and present? In its expression of religious vision, is it too narrow, too shallow to gather up all the people and pull us toward a peaceful and fruitful future?

Your answer to these questions may well depend upon which narrative of our country you deem most true and faithful.

Dwight Moody is dean of the chapel at Georgetown College in Georgetown, Ky.