I Pledge Allegiance…
Rev. Gary Cox
University Congregational Church—Wichita, Kansas
The content of the email I receive underwent an amazing change when I changed vocations. When I worked for ITT Industries, my email was a mixture of very dry technical information involving measurement and control instruments, and really naughty jokes. I confess to having greatly preferred the naughty jokes.
When I became a minister, the jokes dropped off drastically—something I’m not all that happy about, to be honest. But what replaced all those technical briefs is something that I really didn’t expect: Volumes of religious emails mostly convinced that since I am a Christian minister I obviously must think in a certain way.
Some of the religious messages I receive are very good, and I enjoy reading them. But some of them really rub me the wrong way. I am always frustrated when I get a message telling me that Jesus has taken a certain political stand, and if I really love Jesus I will immediately pass this message on to at least ten people. Often, I am assured that good luck will come my way within a few days of receiving the message—if I pass it on to the correct number of people. But if I don’t, well, look out. Because that means I don’t love Jesus, and bad luck will dog me for the rest of my life.
The most common political stand Jesus has taken over the years—at least according to my email—is his sincere desire that we get organized prayer back in the public schools. Since I am an ordained minister, it is assumed that I must be emphatic in my belief that the reason for all the woes in our country is the fact our children are not saying their morning prayers when they arrive in the classroom.
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Over the past few months the Let’s get Jesus back in the classroom messages have been surpassed by yet another religious message: Let’s keep God in the Pledge of Allegiance. I have not been responding to this latest barrage of messages. I learned my lesson when I tried to express my feelings after receiving the first dozen or so emails about prayer in the schools. The relationship between church and state is a complex issue, and even a two or three paragraph response will do nothing but evoke an indignant anger within the people for whom getting God in the classroom is such a vital issue.
I recognize that I am on dangerous ground here. People have strong feelings about this issue—especially about the Pledge of Allegiance. However, I’ve stood in this pulpit and tiptoed through this minefield on previous occasions, and came away with relatively few battle scars. And in light of the furor over the Pledge, I decided this would be a good time to take up the issue of church and state once again.
This issue is a passion for me. It must be the Congregationalist in me. The primary reason the Pilgrims, who were the original Congregationalists, came to this continent, was because it was a place they could build a church over which neither Pope nor King had any control whatsoever. The individual church was to be a product of the faith of that particular church’s members, and a wall was to be erected between the congregation and outside governances, be they religious or political. That’s what Congregationalism is.
Now, when it comes to this church-state issue, there are two things that really frustrate me regarding the people who are pushing the school prayer-slash-God in the classroom agenda. First, they have tried to rewrite history, both by re-defining the founding fathers of this country, and by redefining Jesus.
The second thing that I find so disheartening about the school prayer issue is the fact that the people pushing this agenda have turned prayer into a political weapon. Let’s consider those two things: the re-writing of history, and prayer as a weapon.
Now, in this sermon I am going to use the term religious right, and I want to be clear about something. When I say “religious right,” I am not talking about those sincere people of faith who have adopted conservative theologies in response to their convictions about Jesus Christ. And I am not talking about those people whose political bent is toward the conservative side of the spectrum. When I use the term “religious right,” I am talking about those who use their faith convictions as a justification for attempting to legally impose their political convictions on society.
If you listen to the religious right as it attempts to inflict its version of Christianity on the rest of the world, you would swear that the Founding Fathers were a bunch of Bible-thumping fundamentalists. I could be nice and say this is somewhat of a distortion of the truth, or I could be brutally honest and tell you this is an out and out lie. Claiming the founders of our nation were conservative Christians—well, nothing could be further from the truth.
The Founding Fathers were enlightenment thinkers. The organized church had in many ways suppressed free thought for the better part of a thousand years—the era from around 500 to 1500 AD, the period from around the fall of the Roman Empire to the Renaissance, which historians often refer to as the Middle Ages, or Dark Ages. The men who founded this nation were suspicious of church authority, and they read the Bible with what we can only call “critical interest.”
Most of them believed in God. Many of them questioned parts of the Bible. Thomas Jefferson, himself an agnostic, created what we now call the Jefferson Bible, which contains the Gospels with all the miracles literally cut out. He took a pair of scissors and cut out the miracles, leaving primarily the teachings of Jesus detailing the way we are supposed to live our lives and treat one another. I don’t mind people believing that every single word of the Bible must be absolutely, literally true. But it does drive me crazy when those same people invoke the name of Thomas Jefferson as they make their arguments.
And it wasn’t Jefferson alone whose theology varied widely from most modern Christians. The Founding Fathers, like most enlightenment thinkers who believed in God, were deists. Deists then, and now, believe that God is the original creator of the universe, but that God has no real power or control over things after the process of creation. Deism is the ultimate in reasonable faith. Quite simply, a deist looks at the world and compares it to a clock. It is put together in an intelligent way, so logic would indicate it was created by some intelligent being. But because bad things happen and no amount of prayer can fix them—because the watch sometimes malfunctions and the original creator does not seem to be available to affect repairs—then the creator must not have the power to intervene. God put the universe together, set it in motion—wound it up like a clock—and now God watches the universe unwind.
I should mention that I am not a deist. That is not the way I think about God. But anybody who claims the Founding Fathers were not deists is either deluding himself or intentionally lying. And no rewriting of history is going to change that fact.
One other thing about Jefferson. Toward the end of his life he said that there were three things in his life he was most proud of. You would think that one of these would be the fact that he was the third president of the United States, but that did not make the list. You might think that one of these three things would be his building of Monticello, that magnificent home in the hills of Virginia. But that was not on his list either. Here are the three things Jefferson said were the most important accomplishments of his life: First, his role in the crafting of the Constitution of the United States; second, his starting the University of Virginia; and third, his insistence on the separation of church and state in the laws of Virginia, and subsequently in the laws of the United States.
Attempts to rewrite American history in order to lend support to political and religious agendas is done at our own peril. After all, when have church and state ever become mixed up with one another with good results? I can’t think of a single time in history when this turned out to be a good idea. And if you want to see what happens when religious fanaticism gets mixed up with nationalism, take a good hard look at the Middle East. It’s just a bad idea; or rather, the separation of church and state is a wonderful idea.
After redefining the founding Fathers, those who continue this attempt to pry the religious right’s narrow version of God into the public school classroom decided to rewrite the history of Jesus. The people who are so concerned about getting God in the classroom are in most cases people who have an image of Jesus that is entirely alien to me. To begin with, this Jesus is so patriotically American he might as well be wearing a red, white and blue robe.
This Jesus is perfectly delighted when we drop bombs on the people of Afghanistan. And he is much more concerned with individual freedom and rugged individualism than he is in altruism and love. This Jesus has a special soft spot in his heart for the wealthiest fifth of the world’s population, especially those living in the northern part of the western hemisphere, to the exclusion of those on this planet living in horrendous poverty. This Jesus would rather build a bomb than work at a homeless shelter any day.
I don’t know where they found this guy—this new Jesus—but I do know one thing: they didn’t find him in the Bible. The Jesus we find there was unconcerned with the lines we draw between ourselves on this planet, and very concerned with the poorest of the poor, and those for whom the chances for the good life were simply beyond their grasp.
And it is this redefinition of Jesus that leads to my second great frustration with the school prayer issue: the use of prayer as a weapon. You see, prayer is very important to me. It never ceases to amaze me that we live in a world where at any time of the night or day, each and every one of us has the opportunity to speak with and be heard by our creator. That is an amazing thing, and I don’t take it lightly.
The Jesus we find in the Bible was pretty specific about how and where to prayer. These words are found in the Sermon on the Mount: “And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”
There is nothing ambivalent in that. And consider Jesus’ parable about the Pharisee and the tax collector who went to the temple to pray. Jesus says, “The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”
I believe in prayer. And I wonder how many of those people, who are trying to pry God into the classroom, pause with their children before they go to school each morning and say a prayer together? And not a prayer that thanks God that our little family isn’t like all those heathens at school, but a prayer that seeks true humility in thanks for the gift of life, and sincerely asks for God’s blessings on all the people of the world?
Another thing about the tactics of the religious right concerning this issue of prayer in the schools: I must give them credit for managing to find that one-in-a-million idiotic teacher who actually kicks some child out of the classroom for praying before a test. Because those teachers are the rare exception to the rule. I spent my life in public schools, as have my children, and I never feared that I would get in trouble for saying an honest prayer to God. Oh, I might have, and should have, gotten in trouble if I stood up at some point and started proselytizing in the name of the Lord, thinly disguising my overt attempts to convert people to my way of thinking as a prayer by saying, “Dear Lord” before and “Amen” after my little diatribe. Except for the occasional idiot, teachers do not expel children for praying—certainly not for praying the way Jesus tells us to pray.
And all of this brings me around to the Pledge of Allegiance. Frankly, I wish this whole issue hadn’t raised its ugly head. Because I believe we are a nation under God. I think God is everywhere, and that life is good, and that our attempts to structure society in a way that we can enjoy our freedom and still get along with one another is good. And it seems to me the United States does a pretty good job of doing just that. God bless us!
But I also recognize that the words “under God” were added to the Pledge of Allegiance at that time in our history when a certain element of our society decided there was a communist lurking behind every tree, and that the surest way to combat the evil of godless communism was to invoke the name of God daily in our schools. Thus, in the 1950’s, in conjunction with the McCarthy era, the phrase, “One nation, indivisible,” was changed to read, “One nation, under God, indivisible.”
Again, I wish this issue hadn’t even arisen. But the real irony in all of this is the fact that the people who are most concerned about leaving the phrase “under God” in the Pledge are committing a sort of religious faux-paux when they say the Pledge at all.
As followers of Jesus our allegiance is to God. Jesus told us we could not serve two masters. And he was undeniably specific regarding this matter. Look at the types of questions people asked of him: How are we to live? Should we be faithful citizens and pay taxes? What are the most important rules for human life?
Well, on the subject of citizenship, it seems to me he told us to be good citizens, and in doing so made a strong statement about the separation of church and state: “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.” But he certainly didn’t tell us to pledge allegiance to the state. He gave us the rules in a single sentence: “Love God with your heart, soul and mind; and your neighbor as yourself.”
The term “neighbor” is radically inclusive. It involves our neighbors on all sides of every man-made border we have carved across the earth. It is to them, along with God, that we owe our allegiance.
Still, I recognize that I live in a nation where I am allowed to say the types of things I’ve just said. I live in a nation that protects me from the forces of tyranny that would still my voice. I live in a nation of people who have come to an agreement about how to live in this world—with freedom, and justice, and the right to say what we think.
So there is a bit of irony at work here. Because I love my country, second only to God and the people of God’s creation. But I recognize that the minute religion—even the religion to which I have devoted my life—infringes upon the nation to which I owe so much, and for which so many people have given so much, including their lives—the minute the wall between church and state starts crumbling—then not only is my religion in danger, but my nation is too.
So I will take an unpopular stand by saying I wish the words “under God” had never been added to the Pledge. But I have an idea. What if we teach our children that every day when they first go to school, before the Pledge is recited in any form, they close their eyes for a moment of prayer and make a silent pledge to the one who now and forever deserves our unconditional allegiance? Trust me, they won’t get kicked out of school, unless they try to turn it into some sort of political statement, which could hardly be considered a real prayer, at least according to Jesus’ definition.
Once our children do that, they can safely pledge their allegiance to this great nation, knowing what it is that makes this nation great, and keeping their ultimate devotion anchored where it ultimately belongs: on the love of God, from whom we come; in whom we live, and move, and have our being; and to whom we will inevitably return. Amen.