Thursday, December 04, 2008

The Practicing Progressive

The Rev. George M. Docherty died this past Thanksgiving Day at the very impressive age of 97. Unless you’re even older than I am, you probably don’t remember the good reverend or the sermon he preached to his congregation at New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in Washington D.C. on February 7th, 1954. In his homily, Pastor Docherty, a native of Scotland, mused on the lack of any reference to God in the Pledge of Allegiance. He admitted that he hadn’t even known of the pledge’s existence until his 7 year old son recited it for him. Docherty was stunned when he first heard it. “I came from Scotland, where we said ‘God save our gracious queen,’ ‘God save our gracious king.’ Here was the Pledge of Allegiance, and God wasn’t in it at all,” he recalled in an interview in 2004.

The minister’s topic that particular Sunday was hardly coincidental. He knew that President Dwight D. Eisenhower was to attend services that day. One can only assume that Docherty was a powerful preacher as the very next day a bill was introduced in the House of Representatives to add the phrase “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance. President Eisenhower signed it into law that same year.

Despite the assumption of many that the pledge dates back to the founding fathers,
the original Pledge of Allegiance was the work of another cleric, Francis Bellamy, a Baptist minister and socialist who penned the pledge in 1892 for a children’s magazine celebrating the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ discovery of America.

The addition of the divine blessing to our nation disturbed a great many citizens who felt the phrase violated the intentions of the First Amendment. Equally disturbing for many others was the assumption that the phrase posits: There is one God and, presumably, America abides under this one God’s benevolence.

Such an assumption is highly problematic to anyone with even a passing understanding of the development of religions. Even putting aside the monotheistic implication, an implication that precludes patriotic polytheists like American Hindus and others, the idea that U.S. policies and actions somehow reflect divine intent is troubling to the extreme. Our recent military forays and the continuing discrimination in domestic matters provides vivid evidence for many of us that this is a God we would choose not to be under at all.

A growing number of American citizens are feeling less and less aligned with traditional religious expressions. The problems inherent in assuming an omnipresent, omnipotent and benevolent deity manifest themselves in a myriad of ways from personal tragedies to very public horrors. Many spiritually sensitive people find the traditional image of an anthropomorphic heavenly being severely limiting and have turned to other theological models. To assume that the people of this one nation have one understanding of God is naïve at best and contrary to all evidence. As a parish pastor for thirty years, I can assure you that even in one small mountain congregation the range of understanding of God and godly actions is vast.
In the same week of The Reverend Docherty’s demise, a group of atheists filed suit against the State of Kentucky’s Department of Homeland Security for formally announcing that the security of that state "cannot be achieved apart from reliance upon almighty God.” Indeed, the official state position that offers offence to the atheists also includes a verse from the Bible: "Except the Lord keep the city, the watchman waketh but in vain." (Psalm 127) The atheists are not only concerned with what they consider the abuse of the First Amendment but also the very possible presumption that those assigned to protect Kentuckians’ safekeeping might shirk their duties off on a God who, the atheists point out, hasn’t been particularly consistent of late in the security department.
There are many who continue to believe that America’s Constitution assumes but one theological perspective. But of course there is no mention of God anywhere in that treasured document. The writers were abundantly clear in their intention to forbid any attempt on the part of this new government to intrude on the religious beliefs, or lack of beliefs, of its citizenry.
So, rest in peace, dear reverend, even though you disturbed the peace of many.