June 14, 2004

One nation [head], under God [adjunct]

Another 50-year anniversary today: exactly a half century ago, Congress added the words "under God" to the Pledge of Allegiance that every schoolchild in America recites each day:

I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the republic for which it stands, one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.

(There's often some dubious capitalization in written presentations of this text; I've dropped it, and capitalized normally.) An atheist plaintiff from (of course) California has sued to get his daughter's school to stop indoctrinating her, against his wishes and beliefs, by making her recite the obviously religious bit about God. The state is supposed to be rigidly separate from religion in the USA; here it looked like it wasn't. The Supreme Court today sidestepped the issue by saying that the plaintiff didn't have standing to argue on behalf of his daughter on this matter (he doesn't have custody, and the little girl is a Christian and has no objections to the words above).

So does the added phrase "under God" make the sentence quoted above into religious propaganda on the part of the state, or not? Naturally, you're expecting that Language Log will tell you, since we know what phrases and sentences do. So read on.

Actually, I rather fear I don't really know. Sometimes you need a linguist, sometimes a lawyer, sometimes a priest. Today you may have to go away disappointed. But there is one relevant linguistic point I can make.

Under God is a locative adjunct in the structure of a noun phrase (NP). The NP in question is one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all, and it's actually in apposition to another NP, the republic for which it stands, which denotes part of what allegiance is being pledged to (the other part is the flag). Adding an appositional NP has the effect of conventionally implying that the appositional NP is also a valid description of the other NP that it's attached to. For example, when you say Ray Bradbury, the science fiction author, you're referring to Ray Bradbury, and also adding a secondary claim that he can be correctly referred to as a science fiction author. If it turned out later that he'd never written any of those stories, he plagiarized everything from a housewife in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, you'd still have referred to him.

The complex appositional NP in the pledge does commit the pledger to a number of claims: that the USA is (1) a single nation, (2) located under God in some sense, (3) indivisible, (4) having liberty for all, and (5) having justice for all. One or more of those claims might in principle be false. One can imagine people objecting to (1) because of Guam and Saipan and Puerto Rico; or objecting to (3) on the grounds that of course the nation could be broken up by secession if all parties agreed. One could imagine radical prisoners' rights advocates objecting to (4) or (5) because there is no liberty or justice for a felon imprisoned for years and permanently deprived of any future chance to vote (not my point of view, but the point is that one could imagine someone arguing this). The objection that (2) is false because there is no God seems on a par with these other imaginable objections.

But the thing about these conventionally implied extra statements is that they aren't the main point. Suppose someone said to me, in front of my lawyer, I hereby permanently and irrevocably give to you this garage, the very one where the Hewlett-Packard company was born. If I find out later that Hewlett and Packard never worked there, it's the wrong garage (the real one is in Palo Alto, and if you happen to walk along the right street you can see it, there's a plaque outside), then I may be annoyed with you, and say that you gave me some bad information about my new garage, one thing is for damn sure: it's my garage now. No question about that. The main thing your utterance did was to give me the garage free and clear. The stuff in the appositional NP was secondary, and although its falsity does mean you said something false, that doesn't undercut what the main part of the utterance accomplished. So what I'm saying is that even if there is no God, it doesn't matter. The pledge is valid anyway.

Now, I'm not going to say qua linguist whether including one adjunct containing the NP God is religious indoctrination or not. I'm inclined toward saying it's not, since the adjunct makes no real assertion about what religious beliefs you should have; but I'm happy to leave that to the lawyers. All I'm going to say that the patriotic atheist need not worry too much: the pledge is primarily a linguistic formula for announcing one's loyalty to the flag of the United States of American and to the republic for which it stands. If it is not actually located under God because there's no such entity, or it's not indivisible because voluntary secession is constitutional, that doesn't matter. Those extra claims in the appositional NP are secondary. You can keep an open mind about the truth of any or all of them.

So I'm not settling the matter of the suit (it will probably come up to the Supreme Court again), but I am saying, on this US flag day, that you can put your hand on your heart and pledge a valid pledge of loyalty regardless of whether you think the appositionally tacked-on claims are sound, and so can your kids. So don't hold back from saluting our star-spangled banner because of doubts about the extra adjunct they put into the pledge 50 years ago today.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at June 14, 2004 06:30 PM