The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruling that recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance in public schools is unconstitutional will almost certainly be struck down in any ruling by the Supreme Court. Though the contested words “under God” were added for all the wrong reasons at the height of the McCarthy epidemic in 1954, the amended pledge nonetheless conforms to the Founders’ blueprint as expressed in the preamble of the Declaration of Independence. Should we somehow manage to discern Abraham Lincoln’s “mystic chords of memory” through the din of patriotic soundbites, we might seize this opportunity to reflect more deeply on American first principles.
In many quarters of the world today America is resented–even hated–for its perceived embrace of godless and value-free materialism and the felt imposition of this moral “decadence” on world society. The first American armed conflict of the twenty-first century is being cast by its aggressor in religious terms as a jihad against the infidel, with America blasphemed as “the great Satan.” Osama bin Laden proclaimed that those who attacked the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were martyrs, servants of Allah dying for a holy cause–a view not restricted to terrorists alone. America is caricatured in much of the Muslim world as a godless society wedded to materialism and wanton in the exercise of its power around the globe.
To the extent that this caricature is justified, we have lost our way. American values go far deeper than untrammeled laissez-faire capitalism and have nothing to do with materialism. They rest on the firm spiritual foundation on which the nation was established. At its best, America witnesses to a deep belief in liberty and equality, with the intrinsic worth and dignity of every human being posited at birth. These are religious principles, not arbitrarily fashioned but–in the mind of the Founders–grounded in nature itself.
Some argue that, as truth claims, all beliefs are of equal value (except, perhaps, the belief that all beliefs are not of equal value). By this reading, there are no overarching stories or visions of the good life through which our lives acquire meaning. Yet our nation enshrines a radically different truth–an American vision, if you will–from that espoused by fundamentalist-sponsored terrorism. From a religious perspective, this struggle, one that will continue into the indefinite future, is not between God and godlessness but between competing theological worldviews, with diametrically opposed conceptions of the role religion should play in society to advance the greater good.
It was an English author, G.K. Chesterton, who first said, “America is the only nation in the world that is founded on a creed,” one set forth with “theological lucidity in the Declaration of Independence.” He memorably called America “a nation with the soul of a church.” Though the American Creed as fashioned by Thomas Jefferson and perfected by the Continental Congress rests upon a clear separation between church and state, the body politic does have a soul. Chesterton assumed that the American Creed condemned atheism, since it secures human rights as inalienable gifts from God. The saving irony is that this same creed also protects atheists against the coercion of believers.
In An American Dilemma, a compendious study of American racism, another foreign observer, Sweden’s Gunnar Myrdal, recognized the self-correcting nature of what he too called the American Creed. “America,” Myrdal concludes, “is continuously struggling for its soul.” Pointing to the ongoing battle for civil rights, he recognized the tension between American ideals and their incomplete fulfillment. Yet unlike much self-criticism–which can glibly lapse into self-loathing–the critique of this thoughtful observer was charged with appreciation and hope. He read American history as “the gradual realization of the American Creed.”