“Under What God? or, Dr. Pepper and Me”

July 4, 2011


Malachi 3:8-12

Acts 17:22-34


Just in time for the Fourth of July the Pledge of Allegiance is back in the news.

Did you hear about this?

Apparently during the recent US Open Golf Championship—which was played at the appropriately patriotic Congressional Country Club in the suburbs of Washington, DC—NBC showed a video montage that included a voiceover of children reciting the Pledge. I didn’t see it but I can imagine that it was a kind of “warm fuzzy” moment.

Or at least it was supposed to be warm and fuzzy.

What bothered some people was the fact that NBC edited out the words “under God, indivisible”—both times that it ran that footage.

Those in charge at NBC apologized a couple of times, but the outrage had already begun.

Reflecting on this event, Missouri Congressman Todd Akin said that NBC did this because it is a very liberal news outlet, adding his opinion that “at the heart of liberalism is really a hatred of God.”

The Family Research Council is demanding that NBC “play a public service announcement featuring the Pledge of Allegiance, in its entirety, daily.”

Well, I can’t leave all of that alone.

So as we celebrate the Fourth of July with jazz and fireworks and, much to my inner seventh-grader’s delight, Herman’s Hermits over in Coralville, I want to say a few words about the Pledge of Allegiance.

Before talking about the Pledge, however, I need to say a few things about myself. Most of it will not be news to those of you who have come to know me over the past four years.

Like everyone else, I am a child of my time. Growing up, that was a time of questioning, of disagreeing, even of—at least we thought back then—“rebelling.” Back in high school I joined with others in not saying the Pledge during such occasions as school assemblies. While the Jehovah’s Witnesses at my school were well ahead of us on this, we thought we were pretty daring. And, of course, some got into big trouble for this—big by high school standards, at least.

I didn’t. And when it came time for me to join the American Federation of Musicians in order to make a little more money as a union musician, everyone was required to say the Pledge. So I stood there along with the rest of the members of my little rock band with my hand over my heart, reciting those familiar words along with everyone else. So much for holding to high standards.

I am not, as Garrison Keilor refers to himself, a “museum quality liberal.”

Still, in general, both my theological and political views are on the liberal/left side of the spectrum. So that gives me something in common with Francis Bellamy.

You all know who Francis Bellamy is, right?

He’s the Baptist minister who wrote the Pledge of Allegiance nearly 120 years ago, back in August of 1892. I guess I should say that he was the former Baptist minister, because he was forced out of his church in Boston in 1891 because he was a Christian Socialist and some of the people in the congregation didn’t care for his critique of capitalism from the pulpit.

In 1892 Francis Bellamy was also the chairman of a committee of state superintendents of education in the National Education Association. As its chairman, he prepared the program for the public schools’ celebration of Columbus Day in that year. He structured this public school program around a flag raising ceremony and a flag salute—his “Pledge of Allegiance.”

Now, the original Pledge read: “one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” Bellamy considered placing the word “equality” in that last phrase—with liberty, equality, and justice for all”—but he knew that most of the members of that committee over 100 years ago were against equality for women and African Americans. So much for holding to high standards.

I don’t know. Maybe I’m just really a conservative traditionalist: I find nothing missing in the pledge that my parents and grandparents knew, the pledge that many of you here this morning grew up with, the pledge that Americans found completely adequate for nearly two-thirds of a century. Without “God” in the Pledge we won two world wars and came through the Great Depression.

With the Cold War heating up back in 1954, under pressure from the Knights of Columbus, Congress—which by then had made the Pledge an official state document—changed “one nation, indivisible” into “one nation under God, indivisible.”

The Reverend Bellamy was dead by then, but his granddaughter suggested he would not have approved of the change. “He had considered that ‘One nation, indivisible’ conveyed the deep meaning that after the Civil War our nation could not be divided,” she said, adding that the new reference to God “tampered with the original meaning of the pledge as well as spoiling its rhythmic cadence.” She reminded people that the author of the pledge had been pressured to leave his church in the late 1800s. In retirement in Florida, he stopped attending church because he disliked the racial bigotry he found there.

Well, so much for history.

Back to current events.

In the burst of patriotic fervor back in the fall of 2001, Dr. Pepper, the soft drink company, not a real physician, introduced a new can showing the Statue of Liberty and the words “One nation . . . indivisible.” When people complained, the good Doctor responded by saying that the words “under God” were left out because there just wasn’t enough room on the can.

And now Tony Perkins, the director of the Family Research Council, in addition to calling for that daily public service announcement wants NBC to produce a program explaining the history of the pledge and why “under God” was added. Given what I’ve just told you, I’m not really sure Perkins would like that history.

Me? Well, I tend to side with Francis Bellamy, and, I guess, Dr. Pepper—not so much because I’m a liberal (although I am) but because I’m a Christian (or at least try to be).

And you know that I’m not here to simply talk about current events, but to shine the strange light of scripture on them.

Which is why that speech of Paul to the people of Athens is so interesting.

Paul was astonished by the great ‘devotion” exhibited by the people of Athens. They worshipped any number of gods. And for good measure they even had an altar for “an unknown god.” So Paul begins to speak to them with the tongue in cheek comment: “I see how extremely religious you are in every way”—that is, you seem almost addicted to the worship of “gods.” Paul didn’t care much for vague religious sentiment.

To these people, desperate for something to worship, Paul spoke of the One God who was made known in the death and resurrection of Jesus. This is the God whom we as Christians profess and seek to follow.

The “god” of the Pledge, any generic “god” that the state lifts up is an idol at best. Saying the Pledge, we have to ask ourselves “under what God?” for those gods are many: Mars, the god of war, Mammon, the god of wealth and accumulation, the new god of national security—so many gods vie for our allegiance and our worship.

But, in the words of the old hymn, we “have decided to follow Jesus.” And we have learned from our history as Congregationalists of the dangers that come when the state endorses and enforces religious belief. We have learned from our history as Christians that our faith flourishes when it is free of entanglements with the state.

The prophet Malachi reminds us of what it means to be a nation “under God”—a full measure of devotion is required of the people, not a half-hearted mouthing of empty phrases. Nothing can be held back.

The God whom we know in Jesus is a God who calls for justice in the land, a God who calls us to acts of mercy and compassion.

Each day in our nation:

  • 2 mothers die in childbirth.
  • 4 children are killed by abuse or neglect.
  • 9 children or teens are killed by firearms.
  • 202 children are arrested for violent crimes.
  • 2,175 children are confirmed as abused or neglected.
  • 2,060 babies are born without health insurance.
  • 2,692 babies are born into poverty.

In light of all this, in what sense cancan we claim to be a nation “under God”? The reality is America is jeopardizing its future and its soul—not by our words but by our actions. This should be of far greater concern for us than making sure that we include a phrase about an unknown god when we salute the flag.

The prophet Malachi was clear that more was involved in being a nation under God than patriotic sentiment.

Contrary to the way that those words from Psalm 33 are often used, it is God who chooses a nation and a people, not the other way around. When we listen closely to that psalm, we hear the Psalmist singing, not of national greatness, but of the forgiving grace of God. This grace is the “real power behind illusions of power.”[i] If we understand ourselves as living “under God” then let us do what God requires of us. Let us do justice, and love kindness, and walk humbly.

That is much more difficult than railing against liberals or saying the Pledge and singing “God Bless America” to gain political ground.

John Adams thought that the Fourth of July “ought to be solemnized with Pomp and Parade, with Shows, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more.”[ii] Let us celebrate and give thanks for the toil and blood and treasure that allowed this nation to take our first steps to freedom, for the toil and blood and treasure that eventually secured that freedom for all people, and for the toil and blood and treasure that continues to allow this imperfect nation with our flawed leaders and flawed citizens to move forward in freedom. May God raise up within us and among us a new patriotism that sees and seeks this nation’s good.


[i] “Psalm 33,” New Interpreter’s Bible

[ii] The Book of Abigail and John: Selected Letters of the Adams Family, 1762-1784, Harvard University Press, 1975, pg. 142.