Each of us is endowed with a number of personal strengths and weaknesses. For me, I sometimes find myself in conversations that clearly reveal my weakness in knowing history – even relatively current history.
For example, I learned in a conversation just a few weeks ago that our nation’s oath of allegiance has changed over the years; he was not originally born as we hear and recite him today. Doing a little digging online, I quickly discovered a 2018 Washington Post article by Rachel Siegel that talked about it in detail, focusing on one particular addition and how it came about. What was the late addition to the Pledge of Allegiance that she spoke of? It was the phrase “under God,” officially added to the pledge on Flag Day (June 14) in 1954, when President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the act that made this law of amendment.
I was shocked. Given the important roles that faith in God and the principles of religious liberty played in establishing this nation, the fact that this phrase was not part of the original pledge was a complete surprise. Since my discovery, I have pondered the irony of the circumstances.
Great efforts have been made throughout the history of this country – and they continue to be made by some – to remove from the public arena the teachings that point us to God, faith in God and religious tenants in general. But here is a powerful example of a deliberately placed reference to God in the law and in a covenant – The Pledge of Allegiance! – which is very public, even recited in schools and various gatherings across the country every day.
This added sentence profoundly modifies the definition and description of what our Republic should be: “one nation, under God, indivisible, with freedom and justice for all”. Moreover, there are real implications in this sentence that I would like to expose here.
First, unity. The wording of this sentence suggests that being “one nation” and “indivisible” are intrinsically linked to being “under God” as well. To be “under God” could be interpreted as being derived from God. When we come to believe and understand that we are all children of God (Acts 17:29, Holy Bible KJV), we begin to see the world differently. It is easier to see beyond the distinctive labels and distinctions that exist between us to see the commonality, goodness, and divine nature inherent in all members of the human race. We become more willing to help and serve a neighbor – an act praised on Earth and in heaven as noble and good. This willingness to love, serve, and coexist peacefully comes despite differences in opinion, faith, personal values, etc. Understanding and living the truth that God is the father of all of us has a unifying effect, and we become “one nation…indivisible.” This is achieved by allowing God into the image, not removing it.
Another way to interpret “under God” is to be responsible before God. When we come to believe and understand that we are responsible to God (Revelation 20:12, Holy Bible KJV; Alma 41:3-4, Book of Mormon), in addition to being responsible to governments and legislators, we begin to see the world around us differently. We seek to help and serve our neighbors because our religions teach that it is good and that we will one day be accountable to God for how we live those teachings. This willful effort to become more unified is happening without the need for a government mandate or other worldly forms of coercion, because we want to do what is right in their eyes. Understanding that we are accountable to God has a unifying effect and we become “one nation… indivisible.” This is achieved by allowing God into the image, not removing it.
The most obvious interpretation of “under God” is that he preserves and protects us – and that this protection allows us to be “one nation…indivisible”. Certainly, a nation that is protected and preserved by Almighty God will be indivisible to all earthly powers. In fact, we have a scriptural promise relating to this land that states that this land “is a choice land, and every nation that possesses it shall be free from bondage, captivity, and from all other nations under the heavens” (Ether 2 : 12, Book of Mormon).
This is certainly the protection promised by God, but there is one condition stated in the same verse that we cannot overlook. The promised protection comes “if they will only serve the God of the land, which is Jesus Christ” (Ether 2:12, Book of Mormon). When we understand that the God-given protections we enjoy depend on our service to God, and we do it best by loving Him – by keeping His commandments (John 14:15, Holy Bible KJV) and by loving and serving our neighbors (Matthew 22:37-39, Holy Bible KJV; Mosiah 2:17, Book of Mormon) — we begin to see the world differently. We develop a relationship with God in which we offer him something of ourselves, and he in return offers us, in addition to other blessings, protection and preservation as a people and as a nation. Understanding that God has promised to protect us on condition of discipleship (the badge of which was to love one another, according to John 13:35, Holy Bible KJV) has a unifying effect, and we truly become “one nation … indivisible”. “This is achieved by allowing God into the image, not removing it.
Second, “freedom and justice for all”. The wording of the phrase in the Pledge of Allegiance suggests that freedom and justice for all are intrinsically linked to being equally “under God”. This may bristle among those who argue that religion is unnecessary, restrictive, or watered down or those who argue that faith has no place in the public arena and should be confined to private practice only. These attitudes help to remove God from the picture by restricting one of our most fundamental freedoms – religious freedom – and by shaming those who refer to their faith when sharing opinions or making decisions.
At the 2022 Notre Dame Religious Freedom Summit in Rome, Italy, President Dallin H. Oaks said, “The religious teachings and religiously motivated actions of believers benefit society and deserve legal protection. I refer the reader to his speech, one of the best arguments for broadly enforced religious freedom (no favourites!) I have ever read. Of particular note is the connection between the preservation of religious freedom and the preservation of “many other civil rights” and the protection of belief systems “from which other freedoms derive their meaning” (Dallin H. Oaks , 2022 Notre Dame Religious Liberty Summit).
In summary, when we, regardless of our personal religious background, understand the deep connection between religious freedoms and the other freedoms and justices we espouse as a nation, we become more supportive of all civil liberties and proactive in their preservation. The natural consequence is a nation that offers its citizens freedoms and justice. This is achieved by allowing God into the image, not removing it.
I commend the work of those whose efforts resulted in the addition of the phrase “under God” to our nation’s Pledge of Allegiance. I hope to see believers everywhere uniting to convincingly convey this truth: it is in the interests of our society to allow God — faith, religion, etc. Indeed, to be “one nation… indivisible, with liberty and justice for all,” as precisely defined in our own oath of allegiance, we must also be “under God.”
Michael Turner is counselor in the Frederick Stake Presidency for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Frederick. He is also a professor at Mount St. Mary’s University.