One Nation Under God- Part 2

While courts may view the phrase one nation under God with some skepticism, the American people do not.  An amazing eighty-five percent of us believe the sentiment belongs in the Pledge of Allegiance.  That’s a degree of unanimity Americans share about very few things, and it makes me wonder if people have thought this through.  Is everyone sure what they’re agreeing to?

What’s the significance of being a nation under God?  What are the benefits?  What are the responsibilities?  What are the penalties?  Is it a good idea?  Do we get a say in the relationship, or is this a one-way thing?  Does God watch Fox News and staple tea bags to His hat?  Is God even a male in the first place?  Are we going to find God is a woman, or maybe a He-She, as the ancient Egyptians pictured Atum, the self-created God who mated with his-herself.  That might change a few things.  I’d like to know this stuff before signing the pledge.

The country upon which we base our notions, where we got the idea in the first place, is ancient Israel.  As far as Americans are concerned, biblical Israel is the original nation under God, the Chosen People in the Promised Land, and, apparently, we want to be like them.  We seem to think it was a good deal for the Chosen.  What can go wrong when God is riding shotgun?  It’s like Terminator 2, where the terminator is on our side.

We picture the Israelites thankfully embracing their covenant with Yahweh, endeavoring to live righteous lives, not simply for themselves, but for the national good.  Alone of all the nations, God had selected them for a special relationship.  Anything was possible.  Wealth, power, and security were all promised blessings.  Israel would be the means by which God eventually ruled creation.  It’s like the pictures we hang in Sunday School classrooms, with devoted Hebrews raising their hands in thanks for all that God has given.

Reality, however, was different.  If that fantasy is why so many us want to be a nation under God, we’re in serious trouble, because the Israelites couldn’t wait to stop being so special.  The rewards weren’t worth the costs.

Israel was never an empire; they weren’t even the toughest or richest kid in the neighborhood.  And, in return for those less than spectacular results, everyone reaped the penalties for a sinful king or a neighbor who worshiped Baal.  Most Israelites were dirt poor; they plowed with donkeys; and prophets would show up saying Yahweh was about to burn their villages, rape their women, and throw their children off cliffs, using Assyria as a proxy, because Assyrians were meaner than God.  The Assyrians impaled people alive on stakes as a form of communication.

One of the most significant developments in the entire Old Testament is Ezekiel’s pronouncement that God will no longer visit punishments upon descendants of sinners.  As Ezekiel puts it, no longer will a child’s teeth be set on edge because the parents ate unripe grapes.  Before, a child could be afflicted by God for the sins of a great-grandfather.  It’s why children were occasionally born blind.  But Ezekiel says God has a new proposal.  From then on, God would only punish the actual miscreant, not a generational ancestor, or, by extension, an entire country because of the actions of a few.  It’s the theological equivalent of Hammurabi’s eye for an eye and tooth for a tooth, prohibiting God’s form of tribal justice, where the infractions of a couple idiots can result in the decimation of an entire society.  God promises he will only afflict the guilty.

But that extraordinary offer is exactly what eighty-five percent of Americans wish to reject, regressing theologically three thousand years.  We’re asking to be judged by God as part of a collective, rather than individually.  If I have a lawyer at judgment day, I’ll ask for my trial to be separated, because I’d rather be judged as an individual than as an American.

I don’t mean to be ungrateful.  There’s nowhere else in the world I’d rather live.  But I’m also aware of the extent of our national sins, and I think we’re crazy to ask God to judge us as such, especially when God provides other options.  It’s like a class taking a quantum physics quiz and agreeing to be judged by the worst score.  I know what my grade would be.  Do you want to be judged on the basis of me?

There are no special dispensations for a century of slavery, and a subsequent century of Jim Crow laws.  There are no divine exemptions for our treatment of Native Americans, even if it seems very last century, and they’ve got casinos now.  And these are simply recurrent themes in our complicated history.  Women required emancipation in the twentieth century; gays and lesbians are still waiting for social parity.  The rapacity of our banks sent the entire world into a recession, and we’ve managed to fight a major war every twenty years, even if we have to invent the provocations.  Our actual behavior has never measured up to our ideals, just as the equality of all people has never been a genuine concern.  When we’re five percent of the earth’s population and use twenty five percent of its energy, it’s not like we can claim innocence.  Our consumption makes equality impossible.

Which is why I say we’re nuts.  When it comes to facing God, it should be every person for his or her self.  But since that’s not what we’ve decided to do, and I’m one member of the collective target, I thought I’d offer advice on how to deal with the current situation.

Actually, the advice comes from Abraham Lincoln.  He was remarkably insightful on the relations between God and a nation, and fully aware of our national culpability, even though he never belonged to a church.  Proponents for including the words under God in the pledge quoted his Gettysburg Address as support.

At the very end of his short speech, Lincoln led the audience in an oath, dedicated to a new birth of freedom and to the equality of all people.  He didn’t use the phrase under God as a sign of special blessing.  He used it as the seal on a promise.  Lincoln pledged us, before God, to be true to our stated ideals.  He wanted to hold our feet to the fire.

In other speeches, Lincoln commented on how well we’re doing at that promise, notably describing the Civil War as a judgment from God on the entire nation for allowing slavery.  He even enacted a National Fast Day as a means of country-wide repentance, calling it a day for national prayer and humiliation.  A president now would never call for a day of national humiliation; he’d be accused of being a socialist.

Lincoln’s proclamation for National Fast Day recounts the great wealth and power the nation has achieved.  America is one of the richest nations in the history of the earth.  But Americans have developed a matching national arrogance.  ‘We vainly imagine,” according to Lincoln,” that all these blessings were produced by some superior wisdom and virtue of our own.”  Accordingly convinced of our own superiority, we’re “too self-sufficient to feel the necessity of redeeming and preserving grace.”

Put in simple terms, believing in our own exceptionalism blinds us.  We no longer feel beholden to God or anyone else.  Instead, we assume God likes to hang out with winners, and so, of course, God is with us.  We forget that God defines what it means to win, and wealth, power, warfare, arrogance, manipulation, and greed are not on the list.

For that reason, Lincoln concluded his proclamation with these words:  “It behooves us then, to humble ourselves before the offended Power, to confess our national sins, and to pray for clemency and forgiveness.”

No one could say it better.  He had a clear sense of our sins as Americans.  I’m not sure we do anymore, or have anyone to remind us.

About Bucky Dann

I teach religion, sociology, and psychology at Southwestern Community College in the Smoky Mountains. I have worked in the United Methodist ministry and in the substance abuse field. I possess a Masters of Divinity, a Masters of Philosophy, and a PhD in the sociology of knowledge.

2 Responses to “One Nation Under God- Part 2”

  1. Well, put! We need to be careful for what we wish for, we might get it. Living under a theocracy is extremely dangerous because the powers that be can interpret religous doctrine to suit their own agendas. Henry the 8th comes to mind. If you did not agree with the state instituted religion , he had you perforated or burned { I believe he killed approx 75,000 of his own people}. My own family left England for that reason. My distant grandfather was John Rogers, the Martyr of Deritend. Mary Tudor burned him at the stake. His crime, being a follower of Luther and translating the Bible into English. Later on, many of my people were killed before getting out of England for being Quaker
    Also, if we all agree to be one nation under God I believe, like Lincoln did that does set us up for collective divine judgement and based on the behaviour of the people of America, we should be afraid, be very afraid…..

  2. “What can go wrong when God is riding shotgun?” is a question one might ask if stopped for a quiet beer waaaay out in the desert, and suddenly noticing from the direction of Jerusalem vast numbers of grumpy armoured vehicles charging towards with obvious hostile intent; and charging in from the direction of Mecca likewise. Brrrrr.

    Or was Stalin right with his cynical remark about God always being on the side of the big battalions? (I think it was Stalin, it could have been some other damned realist …)

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