As America morphs from one nation under one Christian god to an amalgam nation under many gods, more scholars are asking whether the phrase “one nation under God” in our Pledge of Allegiance still applies.
Most recently, historian Molly Worthen posed the question in The New York Times and never really gave an answer. She referred to the increase of what she called “Chreasters — Americans who attend church only on Christmas and Easter,” making their rare appearances in church this time of year. She also pointed to a Pew Research Center poll released in October showing that Americans who have no religious affiliation account for 20 percent of the population, up from 16 percent in 2008.
Certainly, four decades of massive immigration have changed not only the complexion of America’s skin, turning us browner, but also the panoply of our faiths. The ballooning population of Asian-Americans includes large numbers of Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists and all manner of non-Christian faiths with solid followings on U.S. soil.
As our non-affiliated population increases, so does our non-Christian population. That has huge implications for us as we move forward. Speaking as one of the non-affiliated, I must say it is liberating to know there are more of us and more non-Christians as well. Sometimes, pop and political culture give one the idea we are a decidedly, oppressively Christian nation that does not take it lightly when we deviate from church dogma.
One such episode was the 2012 political season’s fixation on reproductive rights. This was prompted by three bizarre statements made by white male candidates about the intersection of church doctrine and pregnancy. Another was the Catholic overreaction to the Obama health care plan. “Obamacare” requires employers to cover contraception in their employees’ health plans. The church hierarchy turned around and sued the administration, claiming its health care law violates the First Amendment guarantee of religious liberty.
The Obama administration offered a compromise, saying insurance companies would have to provide contraception for employees who wanted it — so Catholic employers could avoid directly providing birth control. But that wasn’t good enough for the church, and the lawsuits persist.
If we didn’t still see ourselves as one nation under one god, none of this would matter very much. But the fact that we do gives the Catholic Church the right to sue over something like this.
It requires a huge leap of faith (pun intended) to jump from the free-exercise clause to claiming that requiring insurance companies used by Catholic employers (schools, hospitals and the like) to provide birth control to employees who want it (many of whom are not Catholic) somehow violates the right to religious liberty. Yet Catholic prelates feel justified enough in their zeal to overturn this policy that they are willing to invest millions of dollars in lawsuits to try to have it overturned.
Clearly, they and other Christian church leaders still see us as one nation under one god. But as the Pew poll indicates, this is changing. Another Pew poll released two years ago on the “millennial” generation and its relationship with faith should be even more troubling to Christian leaders. It showed the following, quoting from the Pew website: “Americans ages 18 to 29 are considerably less religious than older Americans. Fewer young adults belong to any particular faith than older people do today. They also are less likely to be affiliated than their parents’ and grandparents’ generations were when they were young.”
One day, Christian leaders will wake up and recognize that their era is crumbling. If that means they will have decreasing power in the political realm, it will be a blessing for all of us — regardless of whether the “one nation under God” pledge still applies.
Bonnie Erbe is the host of PBS’ “To the Contrary” and writes this column for Scripps Howard News Service.