Under God

I got forwarded a very old bit of urban legend e-mail today, the one about Pepsi omitting the words “under God” from the pledge of allegiance on new cans of its products.  This bit of falsity has been circulating since late 2001 and it is striking to me that this is still making the rounds. 


If Pepsi had put the pledge on its cans (which it didn’t; it was Dr. Pepper) and it had omitted only the words “under God” from the pledge (which Dr. Pepper didn’t do), I would applaud it for observing the Constitution.  As unpleasant a fact as it might be for some people to confront, the Ninth Circuit was right to find that the Pledge, with the phrase “under God” as added in 1954, does in fact violate the Establishment Clause.  The Supreme Court did not overrule this argument in 2004; instead, it punted a difficult issue by attacking the plaintiff’s standing to sue.  As I noted earlier this month, that’s the way the Court avoids deciding issues it would prefer to not confront.  To argue that the phrase “under God” in a mandatory recital does not constitute an establishment of religion requires arguing – as did the Solicitor General of the United States on behalf of the government – that the phrase “under God” does not refer to any diety but rather to a civic virtue.  In other words, “God” does not mean God, so therefore the Pledge is Constitutional.  This is as objectionable a piece of sophistry as Bill Clinton responding to questioning about having perjured himself by objecting that “It depends on what the definition of ‘is’ is.”


“God” as used in the Pledge most certainly means God – and more specifically, Jehovah, the deity worshipped by Jews and Christians (and, some would grudgingly admit and others would prefer to ignore, by Muslims, too, under the name “Allah”).  It strikes me as unlikely in the extreme that Congress had any other deity in mind, or any sort of pantheistic, generalized concept of whatever deities Americans might care to worship, and it’s a near-certainty that the rights and sensibilities of atheists, agnostics, and other kinds of non-believers were entirely absent from Congress’ considerations, since atheism was seen as a symptom of Communism at the time.


Being that I work in an office that includes some very devout evangelical Christians, I did not indicate that I thought the omission of the phrase “under God” would have been entirely appropriate and correct.  I did, however, point out to the sender of this e-mail that the content of the message was not true, and I included the link above.  I was probably less diplomatic about it than I could have been, but subtlety would have been lost on this particular person.


I don’t have any difficulty with the remainder of the Pledge (the original Pledge) although I do think elevating the flag to be an inherent object of veneration as opposed to a symbol of the polity that it represents is a bit too shamanistic for my taste.  When I am asked to recite the Pledge, everyone around me includes the “under God” clause, but I remain silent at that point and do not say those two words.  No one notices, or if they do, they’ve never seen fit to confront me about it.


If you want to say that this is a nation “under God,” that’s your call and I won’t try to stop you from doing so.  All I ask in return is that you don’t require me to say it along with you.

Burt Likko

Pseudonymous Portlander. Homebrewer. Atheist. Recovering litigator. Recovering Republican. Recovering Catholic. Recovering divorcé. Recovering Former Editor-in-Chief of Ordinary Times. House Likko's Words: Scite Verum. Colite Iusticia. Vivere Con Gaudium.


  1. The First Congress adopted the policy of selecting a chaplain to open each session with prayer. On April 7,1789, the Senate appointed a committee to take under consideration the manner of electing Chaplains.Since the men who wrote the First Amendment religion clauses did not view chaplains and opening prayers as an affront of that amendment. I conclude they wrote what they meant “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; . . .”It’s been part of our history from the beginning.

  2. They can’t force you to pray but they definitively can force you to pay ……. taxes.

  3. Well, this isn’t about taxes, it’s about prayer. If Congress can’t force you to pray, then by the same token, it can’t force you to recite the Pledge of Allegiance (at least, not in the form that includes a reference to God).

  4. Since Madison, “Father of the Constitution” wanted to select a chaplain to open with a prayer I would say that “founder” would not force you to recite “under God” but you must also defer to those who do want to, as written.

  5. Read the last paragraph of the post, and I think you’ll find that I agree with you.

  6. Read the last paragraph of the post, and I think you’ll find that I agree with you. I stop reading after 2,000 words (-:

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