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?’”