In 1954 a joint resolution of Congress added the words "under God" to the Pledge of Allegiance. Among those pushing for this addition were the Knight of Columbus, an American Catholic fraternal organization.
To secularists, these words are anathema, an attempt to establish an official religion and overturn the First Amendment. To others, these words nail America's flag to the mast of Christianity, underscoring that this country is, and always has been - at least in their view - a Christian nation.
I am both less confident and less interested than this latter party in America's Christian heritage. This is not a debate I wish to enter today. Rather, I would like to contend that the words "under God" are essential for Christians, or indeed probably any people of theistic faith, to say the pledge.
My hang up is the word "allegiance." Christians owe their allegiance to Jesus Christ, their Lord and their God. He is king of the universe and king of their hearts. All Christians are, rather literally, monarchists.
This does not necessarily mean that Christians should be theocrats, endorsing government by bishops or other clergymen. Indeed, Jesus Himself insisted that that which is Caesar's should be rendered to him. But I would contend - as I tried to flesh out some years ago - that the republics we establish by the consent of the governed must exist under the larger kingship of Christ. He has granted us, so to speak, the right and responsibility of looking after the affairs of our particular polities. But this does not change the fundamental reality that He is the ultimate lawgiver, judge, ruler, and commander.
So when a Christian - or, so far as I understand, a Jew or Muslim as well - is asked to swear allegiance, the natural question would be, "Do you mean allegiance in the ultimate sense, or in the local, political sense? If you mean in the ultimate sense, my allegiance is to God alone."
Perhaps, you say, it is obvious that a political pledge is concerned with allegiance in the local, political sense, and not in the universal, theological sense. Perhaps that should be obvious. But across the centuries - and certainly in the 20th - regimes have made claims that exceed the political. They have demanded that their own fiat should trump the consciences of citizens, that the good of the state is more important than the moral law. In such cases, the political has claimed an unholy, idolatrous precedence.
Let me be clear: I do not think America is on the verge of becoming a totalitarian dictatorship along the lines of the Communists or the National Socialists. But it never hurts to make clear, long in advance of any problems, the terms of our discussion. And let us not forget that the dictatorship of relativism is quite strong and that it must be opposed, in culture and, yes, sometimes in politics.
Concerns about the First Amendment's establishment clause are not to be taken lightly, but neither should we overlook the fact that, absent these two little words, large swaths of America would rightly have serious questions about taking the Pledge of Allegiance in good faith.