Does it matter whether the Pledge of Allegiance proclaims that the indivisible American republic is "under God"?
In a political sense, the answer is certainly yes. The attorneys general of all 50 states, the Bush administration and many members of Congress joined briefs backing the current wording, an issue to be argued before the U.S. Supreme Court on March 24 in Elk Grove Unified School Dist. v. Newdow.
But the religious answer to the "under God" question is more complicated, as indicated by the unusual lineup of groups taking stands and what they're saying.
Pledge proponents think general acknowledgment of religion is good for society, and dropping God would rewrite history or threaten religion's legitimate status. Opponents, some of them religious believers, argue the phrase violates church-state separation as well as the religious rights of some Americans or that it's just a meaningless phrase and possibly demeaning to persons of faith.
Formal support for deletion of "under God" comes largely from atheists, secularists, Unitarians and Buddhists. Grass-roots sentiment has silenced most Protestant and Jewish organizations that normally champion church-state separation.
In the biggest surprise, the American Jewish Congress, one of the most militant separationist groups, joined conservative religious organizations in asking the Court to retain the God reference.
Marc Stern calls this the "most uncomfortable" decision the American Jewish Congress has faced during his 27 years as a lawyer there, but political realities left no choice.
Victory for "under God" is inevitable, Stern figured, so his group should offer a path to approval on narrow grounds. Further, he feared that if "under God" is banned, public fury might cause a "train wreck" a constitutional amendment undermining the Supreme Court's separation rulings since 1947.
Seven Orthodox Jewish organizations, meanwhile, made an openly religious appeal for the pledge. "Jewish tradition teaches that human recognition of God is the hallmark of civilization," they said. The pledge expresses peoples' universal acknowledgment that "man's destiny is shaped by a Supreme Being" but doesn't endorse any one religion.
With a slightly different tack, Jay Alan Sekulow of the American Center for Law and Justice, a Christian legal agency, argues that the phrase states one of the nation's founding principles, that "rights emanate from God, not from government," something all faiths can agree on.
Many pledge proponents offer secular justifications to fit Supreme Court rulings. They claim "under God" isn't any sort of religious exercise or prayer but simply a factual acknowledgment of the nation's past heritage of faith, for patriotic rather than religious reasons.
If God is eliminated, they say, what about the Declaration of Independence ("endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights") or Gettysburg Address ("this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom") or the full text of the National Anthem ("and this be our motto: 'In God is our trust'").
Proponents also wonder if the constitutions of the 50 states would become unconstitutional, since all refer to the deity.
To Alan Wolfe, a Boston College political scientist and an atheist who accepts the pledge, such references to God are "relatively harmless" because most people think they point to "a kind of friend and counselor, rather than a commanding judgmental presence."
Wolfe says fellow atheists are "used to being offended" and "on the whole list of horrible crimes, this is not a big one."
"For the health of the country," he said, "the people loosely called the religious right ought to win one."
But pledge opponents don't want to give up the fight.
They say removing "under God" follows the logic of previous Supreme Court prohibitions of such school practices as Ten Commandment displays and prayers at graduations and football games.
They also raise religious principles.
"Under God" is a classic example of what scholars call "civil religion" or "ceremonial deism," the merest reference to a purposely vague deity acceptable to anyone.
That's exactly why the pledge is objectionable to believers like Episcopalian Randall Balmer, a professor of American religious history at Barnard College, one of the interfaith religion scholars who filed a brief against "under God."
Balmer says such ritual recitations that mention a generic God "lead to a trivialization of faith."
A leading church-state theorist, Douglas Laycock of the University of Texas Law School, says that if "under God" is really as religiously unimportant as pledge proponents claim, then the government is asking students "to take the name of the Lord in vain," which violates the Ten Commandments.
Laycock and Balmer also say the pledge phrase violates the consciences of students who don't believe in the one God, or in any God. Mixing faith and government doesn't work, they say.
American churches flourish "precisely because government stays out of the religion business," Balmer says.