Thursday, April 15, 2004

Liberty Law School Dean on the Pledge and Symbolism

The Power of Symbolism

I sat in a meeting yesterday in which the Chancellor of Liberty University, Dr. Jerry Falwell, made reference to a legal matter currently before the United States Supreme Court—the constitutionality of the phrase “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance. He made a passing reference to the symbolism that a decision by the Supreme Court striking that phrase would hold. Whatever the legal significance, I agree that the profound symbolism of such a decision could have far-reaching consequences to our country. Many such decisions in the courts over the last half century may have had greater symbolic effects than legal ones. It would be a mistake to believe that symbolic expressions and acts are of no significance.

In preparation to teach Foundations of Law to the inaugural class in August, specifically the concept of jurisdiction, I thought about the Gettysburg Address, in which Abraham Lincoln referred to a national rebirth of freedom “under God.” In that simple symbolic allusion he was referring to the most fundamental idea that the Western legal tradition embraced from the Christian faith. The idea is jurisdiction—that God’s sovereignty transcends and stands in judgment of all human sovereignties. As George Weigel puts it, “Because God is God, Caesar is not God and neither are Caesar’s successors, be they kings, presidents, prime ministers, or party general secretaries. And because Caesar and his successors aren’t God, their power is limited, not absolute; in addition to Caesar’s legitimate power, there are other legitimate powers in the world.”

Abraham Lincoln understood this jurisdictional principle and he understood that any rebirth of freedom must come under the auspices of the sovereign whose jurisdiction it is to grant true freedom to men and nations. And in a simple mid-nineteenth century symbolic expression by the President of the United States, he declared that the State cannot be absolute. It cannot be all there is. The State is, in fact, “under God” and must be forever aware that its jurisdiction is thus limited. It does not grant freedoms. Its jurisdiction is to protect and preserve the freedoms granted by God.

The Chancellor is right. Now, just imagine the symbolism expressed by the Supreme Court of the United States of America striking as unconstitutional the phrase “under God” from the Pledge of Allegiance.

Bruce Green's Blog


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