Ira Chernus  


When a federal appeals court ruled that the words "under God" make the Pledge of Allegiance unconstitutional, it seemed that all heaven broke loose. Today, just as in 1954 when those words first entered the pledge, speaking of "God" gives millions of Americans the illusion, if not the reality, of safety and security. It is not surprising that those millions are fighting so hard to preserve that illusion.

The religious revival of the 1950s promoted what the eminent sociologist Robert Wuthnow calls the "spirituality of dwelling." This style of religiosity made church and synagogue extensions of home. Americans expected strong sheltering walls to keep out dangers that seemed to threaten on every side. In 1954, all adults could remember the ravages of the Great Depression, the fears of fascism, the unprecedented horrors of World War II, and the rise of a "red menace" armed with nuclear weapons. World War III, the first war with no winner, loomed as a very real possibility.

On a more subtle level, social and technological change may have felt just as threatening. Suburbs were growing as fast as farms were emptying. Massive corporations were replacing small businesses as the typical workplace. Television was transforming the everyday world. The seeds of racial equality were already on the wind. Women, briefly liberated during World War II, were struggling with the trials of the nuclear family in the nuclear age.

Containment was the order of the day: containing the communist threat, rapid social change, and women’s aspirations. As anxiety spread across the land, "the Lord’s house" became the most secure container. The words "under God" were tacked onto the Pledge like an invincible roof over the national dwelling place.

The "spirituality of dwelling" still appeals to many. On September 11, 2001, the walls of our national dwelling place were pierced as never before in living memory. But the sense of danger goes much deeper. For many Americans, the real threat comes from what Wuthnow calls the "spirituality of seeking," the new style of religiosity that arose in the 1960s to challenge the "spirituality of dwelling." This new style prizes not security, but the innovation and unpredictability that comes from endless exploration of new values and lifestyles.

Since the ‘60s, Republicans have managed to claim dwelling as their unique preserve, painting the Democrats as the party of the seekers. Catch-phrases like "family values," "the moral majority," "compassionate conservatism," and "school vouchers" symbolize a continuing effort to find shelter from the changes wrought by the seekers.

When Dwight Eisenhower signed the law putting "under God" into the pledge, he had his own clear idea of what those words meant. To him, religion was essentially the force of self-control, the spiritual resource that lets us stifle our own selfish desires and impulses. Ike was sure that selfish impulses, if not held in check, would burst out and tear society apart. Many Americans, then and now, have agreed with him.

George W. Bush was surely aware that he, like his father and their Republican predecessors, Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon, gained the White House only because they were symbols of fixed moral values and rigid self-control. On issues like the economy, health care, and education, Democrats have consistently out-polled Republicans.

The crucial swing vote in every presidential election is the block that is swayed not by issues, but by the lure of seemingly fixed values and personal behaviors, a bulwark against social fragmentation and chaos. Those voters well understood the words in Bush’s inaugural address, condemning the seeker’s lifestyle of "options" and praising the "commitments" of self-controlled citizens firmly ensconced in a safe dwelling place.

Republicans can win only by promising to turn the White House, the schoolhouse, and the nation into one vast dwelling that will withstand every threat of change. To make that promise believable, they must guarantee that the nation will dwell under an absolutely invulnerable roof: "under God." Democrats know full well the power of the spiritual swing vote and dare not offend it. Virtually every politician has good reason to insist that we are, and shall remain, "one nation, under God, indivisible."

Those who would remove all references to God from public life may have logic on their side. A strictly logical analysis might well conclude that the "spirituality of dwelling" can never succeed. No society can remain immune to the changes that time brings. Innovation, uncertainty, and some degree of danger are inevitable facts of life. A nation can use up vast amounts of energy trying to evade those facts, energy that will be spent in vain.

But logic has little to do with it. The recent furor about the Pledge shows how little has changed in the past half-century. For a while, at least, the United States will go on fervently seeking a dwelling place roofed over by an omnipotent protector.