Mark Kleiman points us to this essay by Leon Wieseltier of The New Republic. Wieseltier makes what Kleiman calls, "a religious person's argument against having 'under God' in the Pledge to the Flag — and, more tellingly, against the silly arguments that have to be used to try to keep 'under God' in the Pledge in the face of the Establishment Clause."
As another "religious person," I want to second Wieseltier's argument.
He highlights the strange role reversal that took place in the oral arguments before the Supreme Court of the United States regarding the case Elk Grove School District v. Newdow.
Michael Newdow, the outspoken atheist who wants the words "under God" removed from the Pledge, was almost alone in taking those words seriously. Solicitor General Ted Olson, arguing as the alleged defender of religion, repeatedly argued that God and references to God were of little consequence. This was, to Wieseltier, evidence that "the surest way to steal the meaning, and therefore the power, from religion is to deliver it to politics, to enslave it to public life."
Here's more from Wieseltier:
The solicitor general stood before the Court to argue against the plain meaning of ordinary words. In the Pledge of Allegiance, the government insisted, the word "God" does not refer to God. It refers to a reference to God. The government's argument, as it was stated in the brief filed by Theodore B. Olson, was made in two parts. The first part was about history, the second part was about society. "The Pledge's reference to 'a Nation under God,'" the solicitor general maintained, "is a statement about the nation's historical origins, its enduring political philosophy centered on the sovereignty of the individual." The allegedly religious words in the Pledge are actually just "descriptive" — the term kept recurring in the discussion — of the mentality of the people who established the United States.
Wieseltier takes exception to Olson's account of "the nation's historical origins," and notes that:
… it was exceedingly odd to hear the controversial words in the Pledge described at the Court with Eugene Rostow's phrase "ceremonial deism." Ceremonial theism, perhaps; but that is a more highly charged activity. … Why do the God-inebriated opponents of the separation of church and state in America, the righteous citizens who see God's hand in everything that Fox News reports, insult the founders by revising and even rejecting their God?
The second part of Olson's argument was a rather candid appeal to the expediency of religion. The Pledge is "a patriotic exercise and a solemnizing ceremony," which serves "the secular values of promoting national unity, patriotism, and an appreciation of the values that defined the Nation." The brief further notes that the introduction of God into the Pledge in 1954 had "a political purpose," which was to "highlight the foundational difference between the United States and Communist nations."
Here it becomes clear that Olson's "ceremonial deism" is nothing more than the "civil religion" described by, among others, Robert Bellah. Olson's argument calls to mind the comment attributed to President Dwight D. Eisenhower: "Our government makes no sense unless it is founded in a deeply felt religious faith — and I don't care what it is." What matters in this civil religion is not the reality, character or nature of God, but our own depth of feeling. As a religion, it is not about "I and Thou," but about "I and my depth of feeling about Thou."
Keep in mind that the phrase "under God" is also a declaration of God's sovereignty. It is troubling that we should be asked to recite an affirmation that America is subject to the sovereignty of our own depth of feeling about God.
Justice Stephen Breyer considered this civil religion interpretation, as Wieseltier relates:
Justice Breyer wondered, in a challenge to Newdow, whether the words "under God" referred only to a "supreme being." Citing United States v. Seeger from 1965 … Breyer proposed that such a faith "in any ordinary person's life fills the same place as belief in God fills in the life of an orthodox religionist," and so "it's reaching out to be inclusive" — so inclusive, in fact, that it may satisfy a non-believer such as Newdow. Breyer suggested that the God in "under God" is "this kind of very comprehensive supreme being, Seeger-type thing." And he posed an extraordinary question to Newdow: "So do you think that God is so generic in this context that it could be that inclusive, and if it is, then does your objection disappear?"
Newdow rejected this, noting that he does not believe in the existence even of a "kind of very comprehensive supreme being, Seeger-type thing."
Here again is Wieseltier:
There are two words in the phrase "under God." Each of them is indeed descriptive — but it is not our history that they describe. They describe our cosmos. Or rather, they purport to describe our cosmos. They make a statement about the universe, they paint a picture of what exists. This statement and this picture is either true or false. Either there is a God and we are under him — the spatial metaphor, the image of a vertical reality, is one of the most ancient devices of religion — or there is not a God and we are not under him. Since 1954, in other words, the Pledge of Allegiance has conveyed metaphysical information, and therefore it has broached metaphysical questions. I do not see how its language can be read differently. …
To recognize the plain meaning of the words "under God," and the nature of the investigation that they enjoin, is to discover the philosophical core of religion. This is not at all obvious to the modern interpretation of religion, and not to the American interpretation of it. After Kant explained that we can have no direct knowledge of the thing itself, and certainly not of God, religious statements have tended to be not propositions of fact, but propositions of value — expressions of inner states that are validated by the intensity of the feeling with which they are articulated. Certainty weirdly became an accomplishment of subjectivity.
Wieseltier also notes approvingly the arguments made in a " fascinating brief submitted in support of Newdow by 32 Christian and Jewish clergy." (Kleiman provides a .pdf link to the brief here.)
I also like what this brief has to say, so allow me to quote from it at length. The clergy supporting this brief, it's introduction says:
… do not want government imposing their religious beliefs on children whose parents teach other beliefs.
More distinctively, these amici are profoundly alarmed by the many briefs arguing that the religious content of the Pledge is not to be taken seriously, and that it should be interpreted as merely historical, or demographic, or secular on some other strained theory. Such arguments attempt to strip the religious meaning from one of the most fundamental of religious propositions.
If the religious portion of the Pledge is not intended as a serious affirmation of faith, then every day, government asks millions of school children to take the name of the Lord in vain. Children are asked to recite what sounds like a serious religious affirmation, but it is not intended to have any real religious meaning. This is just as bad from a perspective of religious liberty, and it is worse from a perspective of religious faith. …
The court of appeals correctly held that this recital is a profession of religious faith. … If the language of the Pledge is taken seriously, it cannot be anything else. Yet the United States, the school district, and many of their amici vigorously deny the plain religious meaning of the portion of the Pledge at issue. They seem to believe that the challenged words of the Pledge should not be taken seriously, that children should not understand these words to mean what they say. …
To recite that the nation is "under God" is inherently and unavoidably a religious affirmation. Indeed, it is a succinct religious creed, less detailed and less specific than many creeds, but stating a surprising amount and implying more. …
The United States, the school district, and their amici attempt to deny the obvious religious meaning of the part of the Pledge at issue. They claim that "The Pledge Is Not a Religious Act or a Profession of Religious Belief." "It is not a religious exercise at all." To take these claims seriously is to say that the children are not expected to believe what they are asked to recite, and that the Pledge is not intended to mean what it plainly says. According to the school district and the United States, the students say the nation is "under God," but they do not actually mean that the nation is "under God." The Pledge is not a profession of belief, but a false or insincere recitation. It is an apparent statement of religious faith redirected — misappropriated — to secular and political purposes. …
If the religious language in the Pledge is not intended to sincerely affirm the succinct creed entailed in its plain meaning — if it does not sincerely affirm that the nation is "under God" — then it is a vain and ineffectual form of words. The numerically predominant religious faiths in the United States have a teaching about such vain references to God: "Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain." Exodus 20:7. If the briefs of the school district and the United States are to be taken seriously, then every day they ask school children to violate this commandment.
Exactly. Or, as Wieseltier concludes, "It is never long before one nation under God gives way to one God under a nation."