The Problem With One Nation Under God
By Rabbi Daniel S. Brenner
As a child sent to a religious day school I could not help but feel that God was watching me from above every time I sat on the toilet. I also sensed that God watched sporting events, occasionally guiding basketballs into hoops from half-court (Dick Vital yelling “Hail Mary!”). In fact, all people were living “under” God – a deity above us peering down like the manager of the A&P from his perch atop the customer service desk. So as eight members of the Supreme Court and the rest of the nation debate the phrase “under God”, I’ve been thinking about the “under” part. Where did we get the idea that God was on top of us? How did we get “under” God in the first place?
I ask this question because as my theology has matured, I have come to learn that God, as conveyed in the Five Books of Moses, is not only up in the sky, but very down-to-earth. God is present in rocky valleys, bushes, even inside of tents. Jacob wakes up from sleeping on a stone pillow and says, “God was in this place and I, and I did not know it!” God in a thorn bush says to Moses “I will be what I will be,” a cloud called “God’s glory” enters the sacred tent before the children of Israel.
So how did God become “on high” – and as a result we become “under” God? The source for the phrase “God on high” is an obscure name for God in the Book of Genesis that is uttered by Melchizedek of Salem, one of the Kings who tries to butter-up Abraham. In doing so, he praises Eyl Elyon, which literally means “God on top” but is translated as “Most High God” or “God on High.” Interestingly, none of the patriarchs or matriarchs ever refers to God with this name. Rather, they have a more expansive knowledge of God, and elsewhere in Genesis, we can hear it echoed in Jacob’s blessing: “by the God of your father, who will help you, by El Shaddai, who will bless you with blessings from the sky above and blessings from the deep, lying below, blessings from the breasts and the womb.”
One of my teachers in seminary, the historian Tikve Frymer-Kensky, spoke of the Biblical God as one that is synthesized from the ancient sky gods and the ancient earth gods (as well as a few other gods with varying genders) into one deity. The innovation was to create one unified name for all of the powers that compelled the natural world. And in the Bible, God speaks from within these forces– “Out of the heavens God let you hear His voice to guide you,” we read in the fourth chapter of Deuteronomy, “and on earth God let you see His great fire, and you heard His words from the midst of the fire.”
So, from this expansive Biblical vision of God in which God permeates all of reality, in both the elemental and the human realms, how did we get into thinking of ourselves as simply ‘under’ God?
The vast majority of the metaphors used to describe God on high come in later works, most notably the Psalms, which are replete with poetic language that describes God in this way. God is ‘above the heavens,’ is the ‘King of Kings’, is the ‘Judge on high seated on his throne.’ Those metaphors would surely place us under God – but the author of the Psalms also includes conceptions that are more earthbound. God is a rock, God a fortress, God a dwelling place. And there are conceptual names for God – God as truth, salvation, exceeding joy – that have nothing to do with location.
Why does it matter so much for us to dissect the phrase ‘under’ God? In part this matters because we are increasingly becoming a more religiously diverse nation.
At a time when religious totalitarianism is making a comeback around the globe, we should recognize our diversity – the fact that while some Americans do envision that believers are below and God is above, others see God within, God as permeating all things, God as manifest in multiple realities or God as a force that by definition can not be limited to human conceptions. There are even a few folks who proudly call themselves ‘godless.’ In short, if the pledge were an actual reflection of America’s theological diversity it would have to have a section with a “fill in the blank.”
But there is a more important reason for us to revise the language ‘under’ God. We live in an era where it is not only up to God whether we live or die – but also up to us. As we continue to poison the planet and march faster to ecocide, both God’s immanence in creation and human responsibility should be implicit in our theology.
Yes, God is cosmic. When I look up at the night sky, I see a reflection of God’s glory. But I also see it as I dig in the garden. And that time that I went snorkeling in the Gulf of Aqaba – that was a blessing from the depths. But most importantly, I sense God’s presence as a force that exists between people when they are reflecting the attributes of understanding, kindness, support, mercy, and justice.
So I think that it is time for us to let go of “Under God” and recognize the phrases’ limits. It reverts us back to the ancient sky god and reinforces the notion that God can only be understood as a judge or king who looks down on us. God is much more.
Rabbi Daniel S. Brenner is the Director of the Center for Multifaith Education at Auburn Theological Seminary in New York City.