"One nation under God."
That phrase isn't part of the Constitution, and may not be constitutional in the Pledge of Allegiance, but many Americans have made it clear those four words embody their feelings toward the nation no matter what the courts say.
In this post-Sept. 11 year, when people from coast to coast have prayed together at innumerable memorial events and have sung "God Bless America" in classrooms and baseball stadiums, this summer's federal court ruling on the pledge could hardly have caused more outrage.
It was the most dramatic example of a phenomenon that's been going on for years: The courts try to restrict public expressions of nondenominational religion, but on the streets, people don't accept the ruling.
The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals banned the use of "under God" in public school recitations of the pledge because the U.S. Constitution forbids "an establishment of religion" by government.
That decision has been labeled "absurd," "asinine," "heinous," "mindless," "outrageous," "very dangerous" and "just nuts" by an assortment of Democrats, Republicans and religious commentators. The day of the ruling, June 26, the U.S. Senate passed an instant denunciation, 99-0, and House members gathered en masse on the Capitol steps to defiantly recite the pledge.
Even the Anti-Defamation League, which ardently advocates church-state separation, declared the ruling "goes against the culture and traditions of this country."
Roman Catholic philosopher Michael Novak says that part of the reason for the reaction is that in times of crisis like the war on terrorism Americans tap a "reservoir of national understanding" that includes "public religiosity" alongside private faith.
Boston College sociologist Alan Wolfe likewise thinks it's natural that "people turn to religious values to express themselves." He considers this no threat to America's "remarkably tolerant religious environment."
Of course, Michael Newdow, the plaintiff in the pledge case, doesn't think that recitations of "under God" are tolerant toward fellow atheists, and last week he filed a similar suit to eliminate chaplains for the U.S. Congress.
But Newdow is fighting a losing battle in the court of public opinion.
There are ongoing efforts to impeach the 9th Circuit judges and overturn their handiwork, and 356,000 Americans have signed a petition backing proposals in Congress to amend the Constitution and make the pledge inviolable.
Wolfe considers the pledge phrase a "trivial" compromise with public sentiment. "I don't believe in God, but it doesn't bother me," he said. "You have to live in society with those who do."
The pledge debate is occurring in the midst of a broad rethinking of the "establishment of religion" clause.
The day after the 9th Circuit decision, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5-4 in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris in favor of tuition voucher plans that include religious schools. Justice David Souter's dissent protested that this obliterated doctrine dating back to the 1947 Everson decision.
Everson was the first ruling to say the establishment clause requires separation of church and state, which the court interpreted to mean that federal, state or local governments could not "pass laws which aid one religion, aid all religions, or prefer one religion over another."
That led to bans on graduation prayers, football prayers, moments of silence and Ten Commandments displays in public schools, precedents that undergirded the 9th Circuit's pledge decision.
But popular dissent is unending.
The president of the Southern Baptist Convention and TV evangelist Jerry Falwell have called for mass civil disobedience in the form of ongoing classroom pledge recitations. A November federal trial will decide whether a Nebraska school board member should have led the Lord's Prayer at graduation. And hardly a week passes without legal footwork over the country's 4,000 municipal Ten Commandments displays.
The same week as the pledge and voucher rulings, Harvard University Press released Separation of Church and State, a book by Philip Hamburger of the University of Chicago Law School. Hamburger contends that "the constitutional authority for separation is without historical foundation."
In Hamburger's view, the Constitution's framers merely meant to bar public funding of churches and discrimination against particular faiths. Novak's latest book, On Two Wings, underscores the devoutly religious intent of the framers.
However, some conservative Christians still prefer not to utter the G-word in the pledge. Among them is Mark Noll of Wheaton (Ill.) College, an evangelical thinker who says "a slogan like 'under God' doesn't help to clarify helpful ways of bringing God into public life."
Douglas Laycock of the University of Texas School of Law thinks the private religious preferences of Americans should be protected. On that basis he defended both June rulings for vouchers and against "under God."
In his view, the Constitution is "about protecting both believers and nonbelievers, and all kinds of both, and enabling us to live together in relative peace in the same society." In principle, he thinks God in the pledge is mistaken because "either it's a real prayer," which is an illegal government establishment of religion, "or we're taking the Lord's name in vain. We shouldn't do either."
Nonetheless, Laycock says rulings such as the pledge ban are "a stupid thing to do" in light of public sentiments. "The harm done by such practices is extraordinarily modest," he says, yet they weaken citizens' faith in the courts as they handle more troublesome aspects of public religion.