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Whose God Are We Under?

During their annual convention in November, Alabama Baptists adopted a resolution affirming the words “under God” as part of the pledge of allegiance.

The resolution was adopted in response to a decision by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals this summer that ruled “under God” in the pledge is a violation of the First Amendment. The panel ruled that having public school children say “under God” puts the state in a posture of promoting religion.

There was such a public outcry about the ruling that the court decided not to enforce the decision. The matter is now under review by the entire 9th Circuit panel. My guess is either the court will reverse itself, or the U.S. Supreme Court will overturn the decision. Either way, the words are sure to continue to be part of our pledge.

Regardless of what the courts determine, people of faith need to give careful thought to what it means to say we are “under God.” Invoking God as a national symbol is sort of like herding cats. After all, what does it mean when someone says “God”?

For Alabama Baptists, “God” is our heavenly Father who offers salvation and eternal life for all who believe in Jesus.

For followers of Judaism, “God” is the one who delivered the Hebrew people out of bondage in Egypt. In the wilderness this God established a covenant with the Hebrews that reveals the way God’s people should live.

Some might argue that both of these are the same God. But the particular understanding of who God is and what God expects in each tradition is marked by carefully worded distinctions.

Simply put, it may be the same God in each tradition, but each tradition is saying something quite different about the God in question.

And this does not even begin to touch what God means to Mormons, or Muslims, or Hindus, or Buddhists.

This is why invoking “God” is so difficult, and so risky. If saying “God” meant the same thing to all of us, then using God as a national symbol would be profoundly unifying.
Unfortunately, that is not likely to happen. In my tradition, we joke and say where two or more Baptists are gathered there will be disagreement—about everything! The same is true for Americans in general.

In order for a statement like “one nation under God” to be a true representation of our national life, we must first find a way to make “God” fit everybody’s definition of God.

About the only way to do that would be to claim that the God to whom we refer in our pledge is a not the specific God of any particular faith, but is rather a generic God of the American experience. Doing this would make it possible for us all to affirm this God as our own, but in the process we empty God of the very specificity that makes God important.

The other alternative is to define the God we are under as the specific God of a particular faith tradition. But which one? Which faith tradition is the official American religion? And after we answer that question, does that mean people of other faiths are non-citizens?

The danger here should be obvious. Instead of unifying us, pressing our claim to be under a particular God will divide us against ourselves.

At any rate, the words “under God” are sure to continue in the pledge, even though we understand they don’t mean the same thing to everybody. Whether or not that will create problems for us down the road, only time will tell.

James L. Evans is pastor of Crosscreek Baptist Church in Pelham, Ala.