The Pledge Decision

by Luke Muehlhauser on March 16, 2010 in Ethics,Guest Post

in god we trust

The ethical theory I currently defend is desirism. But I mostly write about moraltheory, so I rarely discuss the implications of desirism for everyday moral questions about global warming, free speech, politics, and so on. Today’s guest post applies desirism to one such everyday moral question. It is written by desirism’s first defender, Alonzo Fyfe of Atheist Ethicist. (Keep in mind that questions of applied ethics are complicated and I do not necessarily agree with Fyfe’s moral calculations.)


On Thursday, March 11th, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals handed down two decisions stating that having ‘under God’ in the Pledge of Allegiance and ‘In God We Trust’ printed on the money did not violate the Constitution of the United States.1

Promoting Religion

In defense of the claim that having ‘under God’ in the Pledge is constitutional, the majority in this 2-1 decision claim:

the Pledge of Allegiance serves to unite our vast nation through the proud recitation of some of the ideals upon which our Republic was founded and for which we continue to strive: one Nation under God – the Founding Fathers’ belief that the people of this nation are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; indivisible – although we have individual states, they are united in one republic; with liberty – the government cannot take away the people’s inalienable rights; and justice for all – everyone in America is entitled to equal justice under the law.

In this paragraph, the majority explicitly state that the term ‘under God’ in the Pledge of Allegiance is meant to promote – to exhault and praise and encourage support for – the idea that there is a God and America should be a nation under that God. In short, the term is not merely a descriptive statement saying, “here is how things happen to have been.” It is a prescriptive statement that says, “here is how things should be in the future.”

And what the government is prescribing is the idea of ‘one Nation under God.’

So, how is it the case that a statement, by the government, that the citizens should proudly support the ideal of ‘one Nation under God’ not constitute an attempt by the government to establish a particular attitude towards God and the relationship between the nation and God?

The notion that the term does not serve to promote – and in promoting, attempt to establish – a particular attitude towards God and towards the nation’s relationship to that God – is utter and complete nonsense.

The Pledge Is a Patriotic Exercise

The first argument that the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals uses to argue that the Pledge of Allegiance, with the text “under God,” is constitutional is grounded on the claim that it is a patriotic exercise. Because it is a patriotic exercise, it is not a religious exercise in a sense that violates the Constitution. It may have religious elements, but its main purpose – a patriotic exercise – is not something the Constitution prohibits.

We hold that the Pledge of Allegiance does not violate the Establishment Clause because Congress’ ostensible and predominant purpose was to inspire patriotism and that the context of the Pledge – its wording as a whole, the preamble to the statute, and this nation’s history – demonstrate that it is a predominantly patriotic exercise. For these reasons, the phrase “one Nation under God” does not turn this patriotic exercise into a religious activity.

They make a point out of the fact that even the dissenting judge agreed that the Pledge is a patriotic exercise.

Even the dissent agrees on this determinative point. Dissent at 4040 (“[T]he recitation of the Pledge both as originally written and as amended is a patriotic exercise . . . . “)

Yes, the Pledge it is a patriotic exercise.

That is a major part of the problem.

It is a patriotic exercise that defines what it means to be a patriotic American. That definition states that patriotic Americans support union (indivisibility), liberty, justice, and, starting in 1954, ‘one Nation under God’.

By extension, it says that Americans who do not support ‘one Nation under God’ are not patriots.

If you doubt that this meaning is found in the Pledge, simply look at the other three elements. Consider how absurd it would be to suggest that, ‘When the Pledge talkes about ‘one nation . . . indivisible’ it doesn’t really say that there is anything wrong with secession or splitting up the union. It says that this is perfectly legitimate. It simply states that the founding fathers did not like the idea of secession.

Or imagine somebody arguing, ‘Hey, the pledge doesn’t object to tyranny and injustice. It is perfectly consistent with the view that tyranny and injustice are totally acceptable. It just states that the founding fathers happened to be in favor of liberty and justice.’

These statements are absolutely absurd.

They are just as absurd as the claim that the phrase ‘under God’ was not added to the Pledge for the purpose of promoting and encouraging people to believe in God. It brands those who do not believe in God as being as unacceptable . . . as unAmerican . . . as those who would support secession, tyranny, and injustice.

Part of the effect of this is that it serves as a political filter that is 99.9% effective at keeping atheists out of public office and positions of public trust.

The Beliefs of the Founding Fathers

In defending its decision that “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance is constitutional, the majority claims that it is relevant that the founding fathers believed that our inalienable rights were granted by a Creator.

The Founders did not see these two ideas – that individuals possessed certain God-given rights which no government can take away, and that we do not want our nation to establish a religion – as being in conflict.

Let’s grant this, for the sake of argument.

And let us also ignore the fact that a substantial protion of them did not see a conflict between the claim that individuals possessed certain God-given rights and slavery.

And let us also ignore the fact that they believed that, literally, all men were created equal while women were created inferior to men.

There is also no conflict between the belief that God granted us certain inalienable rights and, at the same time, it is wrong for the government to push this notion on its citizens.

Seriously look at what the majority is telling us in this opinion. They are telling us that, if you believe that our rights come from God, and if you believe that the government should not establish a religion, then you must believe that a patriotic exercise claiming that those who do not support one Nation under God are not patriots is not an exercise in trying to establish a religion.

In other words, the majority in this decision is telling us that if you accept:

(1) Our rights come from God.


(2) Governments should not establish a religion.

then you must also accept

(3) A political exercise in which the Government says – and in particular, insists on teaching young children – that those who do not believe in God are not patriots is a violation of those God-given rights.

The whole purpose of the Court opinion is to defend (3) so either it is telling us that (1) and (2) imply (3) or it must confess that in claiming (1) and (2) it is telling us something that is totally irrelevant to the truth of (3) and, as a result, totally irrelevant to the Court’s conclusion.

Yet, America is filled with people who believe (1) and who believe (2) but who also reject (3). Even though they believe in a God and that God is a source of our rights, they also hold that one of the rights that this God gave us is a right not to be subject to government practices that aim to declare and promote the idea that those who do not support ‘one Nation under God’ are not to be thought of as loyal and patriotic Americans.

And, indeed, (1) and (2) do not imply (3) in any sense. Consequently, (1) and (2) do not yield the conclusion that the plaintiff is wrong in this lawsuit.


All three of these arguments are utter nonsense. They are so absurd, in fact, that they invite us to ask the question of how the Judges who wrote the decision could not see the stupidity of what they write.

Perhaps they did. However, being political animals, they new they would draw the wrath of a good portion of the American public if they actually read an opinion in which they gave the conclusion that reason dictates in this case. They had to make something up, in this case. In doing so they had to have known that the bulk of the American people would embrace and cheer any nonsense that the judges wrote, no matter how stupid, because it supported a conclusion they wanted to see supported.

Or perhaps the same prejudices that infect the people of this country – that blinds them to the nonsense in these arguments – infected the judges themselves. These would be the very same prejudices that the Pledge itself, and the Motto, are now teaching American children from the first day they enter school, if not before.

- Alonzo Fyfe

  1. This post is a compilation of three posts made at Atheist Ethicist. []

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{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

Como March 16, 2010 at 7:45 am

I’ve heard there is a silent protest going on in the US where individuals are using permanent markers to blank out the phrase “In God We Trust” on paper currency. Is this so and is it getting any publicity?


Como March 16, 2010 at 8:30 am

This topic is also related to the use of the phrase “So Help Me God” at the end of oaths of office (enlistment in the military, juror swearing in, etc). Courts have ruled that individuals cannot be barred from serving for refusing to say the last sentence but it is always included as the default and one would have to request not to say it. I was selected for jury duty last year and during the swearing in portion I said that I could not affirm the oath as presented. Did this get me out of jury duty? No, the judge simply read me a different oath, “Do you swear…on penalty of perjury?” And each time thereafter that the jury was sworn in the judge would recite one oath for the other 11 jurors and then a separate one for me. These oaths were probably not originally intended by the writers as an attempt to use the power of the government to establish belief in God as the norm for the country. However, that has been the actual consequence. People tend to take for granted whatever everyone around them takes for granted. So, the question is, if the government makes people say “So Help Me God” as the norm to join the military or sit on a jury is the government making belief in a god the norm for the country?


Darius March 16, 2010 at 12:53 pm

This is Dan Barker-like crap. That’s why the Daily Show made fun of this kind of nonsense.


Ben March 16, 2010 at 1:06 pm

This is why philosophers should run the country. Imagine a government run on the principles of sound reason and argument. It’s unreal that the most powerful people in our country can’t see the massive flaws in their own reasoning when making these kinds of decisions. It’s disheartening, to be honest.


Josh March 16, 2010 at 1:24 pm

I agree; I can’t believe that they don’t see how freaking obviously stupid this is. Could you imagine if it said “In Buddha we trust”?


Jeff H March 16, 2010 at 4:08 pm

Hmm, so what these judges are really saying is that anything put in the pledge of allegiance can be justified since the primary intent is to be patriotic. So “one nation, lynching Negroes” is perfectly fine. Wonderful!

I’d recommend, though, that you change your pledge to something like, “one nation, fat as hell”. I think that stays true to the values of Americans, doesn’t it?

Side note: What the hell is wrong with your country??


Mark March 16, 2010 at 4:31 pm

“By extension, it says that Americans who do not support ‘one Nation under God’ are not patriots.”

It doesn’t say that at all. Stating it is patriotic does not mean not saying it is unpatriotic. Silence gives consent.

“It simply states that the founding fathers did not like the idea of secession.”

The pledge came along well after the founding fathers were dead and gone. The court cites the founders because their intent may be relevant applying a constitutional principle. Besides, the fathers weren’t necessarily against the idea of secession either.

This post was disappointingly full of logical fallacies and ridicule…all over the pledge?


Mark March 16, 2010 at 4:47 pm

(Note that confusingly, I am a different Mark.)

Mark: It doesn’t say that at all. Stating it is patriotic does not mean not saying it is unpatriotic. Silence gives consent.

What exactly is the point of having an official pledge of allegiance if not to serve as a public affirmation of patriotism? How are people who refrain from this affirmation likely to be perceived?


Alonzo Fyfe March 17, 2010 at 2:40 am


It doesn’t say that at all. Stating it is patriotic does not mean not saying it is unpatriotic. Silence gives consent.

Do you mean for this to be an objection to what I wrote?

Because it is one of the absurdities I addressed specifically in the post.

It is as absurd as saying that the use of the term ‘indivisible’ in the text is not to be understood as saying, ‘Union = good; secession = bad”. Or that the use of the term ‘liberty’ is not meant to promote the idea of ‘freedom = good; tyranny = bad.’

Are you denying this?


david March 17, 2010 at 3:47 pm

Although eligible for US citizenship, I could never pledge allegiance to a religious state. If “under god” was removed, I would feel differently.

Only a Christian could argue that “one nation under god” doesn’t actually mean “one nation under god”


BadWolf March 21, 2010 at 4:55 pm

There are more problems than this with the majority opinion.

How can the pledge in its current form be called unifying when, as evidenced by the sheer fact that there is a court case against it, it is clearly divisive?

I have also heard the argument that taking it out is an attack on God and/or Christianity. I think those individuals might feel differently if they saw the atheist equivalent to the motto. To endorse atheist ideas as strongly as the Christian ones currently endorsed, the motto would have to read “We trust there is definitely no God”, and the pledge would have to read “one nation, godless”.

There is an even more dangerous angle to the “under God” phrase in the pledge. It implies that the laws of the nation are superseded by God. This one nation, this nation of laws, is “under God” and therefor the laws of God, whichever god that may be, are to be obeyed over the laws of the land. It’s a dangerous precedent.


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