Piereson received a BA and doc­torate in political science from Michigan State Uni­versity. He is also a senior fellow at the Man­hattan Institute and pres­ident of the William E. Simon Foun­dation. Man­hattan Institute | Courtesy

He began his lecture with the question, “One nation under God?” On April 10, Dr. James Piereson talked about the current con­tro­versy over ref­er­ences to God in both the U.S.’ cur­rency and the Pledge of Alle­giance.

Piereson received a BA and doc­torate in political science from Michigan State Uni­versity. He is also a senior fellow at the Man­hattan Institute and pres­ident of the William E. Simon Foun­dation.

Piereson explained the current con­tro­versy over these reli­gious ref­er­ences. Many oppo­nents point out that there is no ref­erence to God in the con­sti­tution, and the estab­lishment clause of the First Amendment pro­hibits the gov­ernment from being involved in religion.


Piereson also cited the case of Michael Newdow as an example of the changing times; Newdow and his group were able to ban the recitation of the  Pledge of Alle­giance in all public schools in the 9th Dis­trict Court of Cal­i­fornia. Although the Supreme Court even­tually over­turned this decision, Piereson found this was merely due to a tech­ni­cality.

Overall, Piereson does not find the judicial matter to be par­tic­u­larly hopeful.

“The prece­dents set down by the Supreme Court are not encour­aging,” Piereson said. “The court ruled that ref­er­ences to God are merely cer­e­monial and therefore do not amount to an estab­lishment. But the implicit idea under­lying this decision is that this is not really serious talk; it’s just cer­e­monial talk about God.”

Piereson also explained the history behind the phrase, “one nation under God.”

Piereson said Lincoln was the first to use the phrase in the Get­tysburg Address, and most likely drew it from George Wash­ington. Piereson explained Lincoln’s meaning behind the phrase.

“The con­ven­tional view is that America lived under divine pro­tection and under divine judgment,” Piereson said. “No doubt Lincoln did mean that. Some stronger glue or cement to bring the nation together was needed to survive the Civil War.”

Piereson con­cluded this expla­nation by stating that Con­gress was respon­sible for adding the phrase “under God” in the  Pledge of Alle­giance in response to Pres­ident Eisenhower’s urging. Con­gress also leg­is­lated that “In God we trust” would be America’s national motto, which is also on American coins and cur­rency.

Piereson con­nected this his­torical back­ground to the current argument in favor of removing reli­gious ref­er­ences.

“The argument goes that American insti­tu­tions are founded on a secular foun­dation and need no ref­er­ences to God or some tran­scendent moral order,” Piereson said. “But it appears that from the his­torical evo­lution from these doc­u­ments that these were important ref­er­ences that tended to cement our insti­tu­tions and undergird our liberty.”

However, Piereson noted a key dif­ference.

“Our country today is much dif­ferent than it was in 1776,” Piereson said. “We’re living at at time when the foun­dation of the insti­tu­tions of America are under tran­sition. They are being chal­lenged in ways they haven’t been chal­lenged before.”

Piereson gave no rec­om­men­da­tions to stem the tide of change, which is some­thing senior Hans Noyes found appro­priate.

“Overall, the problem he’s describing is a cul­tural issue,” Noyes said. “On any culture issue, you’d like to think you can just pass some law, but you can’t. It’s a lot more com­pli­cated. He’s actually right in saying that he doesn’t have any pro­posals because it’s such a com­pli­cated thing.”

As to the rel­e­vancy of Piereson’s method in explaining the history behind these reli­gious ref­er­ences, sophomore Josiah Leinbach felt this method was not com­pletely irrel­evant.

“Facts can be pre­sented in a way that aren’t nec­es­sarily devoid of feeling. History is filled with people, and it’s filled with people doings things because they have various feelings, desires, emo­tions and ambi­tions,” Leinbach said. “Fun­da­men­tally, the problem is that the majority of young people today do not nec­es­sarily con­sider the past some­thing worth ref­er­encing. Instead they con­sider it back­wards and irrel­evant to any aspect of modern day.”

Leinbach went on to say that this argument may, however, prove to be fruitful.

“The argument may fall on deaf ears,” Leinbach said, “but it does provide the oppor­tunity to take a step back and first ask, ‘Does history actually matter?’”