On March 11, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the constitutionality of the phrase “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance and the motto “In God We Trust” on U.S. currency.  The court’s decisions came in response to two separate legal challenges by atheist Michael Newdow who claimed that the phrases violate the Constitutional provision for the separation of church and state.  The appeals court disagreed with Newdow’s contention and a lower court decision in his favor.  It was a rare occasion for many conservative Christians to cheer a ruling by the 9th Circuit, a court with a longstanding reputation for political liberalism and judicial activism.

Christians who interpretted the court’s decision as a victory for faith and America’s religious heritage should have looked beyond the bottom line and read the fine print of the judges’ rationale for their ruling.  There’s not much to celebrate.  In the 3-0 decision in favor of retaining “In God We Trust” on U.S. currency, the court cited an earlier opinion by the 9th Circuit in the case of Aronow v. United States (1970) in maintaining that the phrase does not remotely approach the establishment of religion since it is only “ceremonial” and “patriotic” in nature and “has no theological or ritualistic impact.”  In essence, the court’s opinion was that the phrase on U.S. currency is harmless because it really doesn’t mean anything substantive.  You know, we trust in “God” (wink, wink) in a sentimental, inspirational, generic, patriotic sort of way.  Really?  That’s what “God” means?  That’s who “God” is? 

On March 5, 1984, in the case of Lynch v. Donnelly, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5-4 in favor of the inclusion of a nativity scene in a municipal Christmas display in Pawtucket, Rhode Island.  Chief Justice Burger wrote the majority opinion in the ruling; Justice Brennan authored the dissenting opinion.  In his dissent, Brennan acknowledged that government can’t be completely separated from religious beliefs and practices, especially as they relate to the nation’s history and culture.  He referenced two examples.  “While I remain uncertain about these questions, I would suggest that such practices as the designation of “In God We Trust” as our national motto, or the references to God contained in the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag can best be understood, in Dean Rostow’s apt phrase, as a form of “ceremonial deism,” protected from Establishment Clause scrutiny chiefly because they have lost through rote repetition any significant religious content.”  In other words, these two phrases have been said so much and read so much that they no longer have any substantive theological meaning.  They are just quaint features of our national history and identity.  It’s “ceremonial deism,”  that’s all.

In 1907, President Theodore Roosevelt found himself at the center of a public relations firestorm because he had approved a new design for the $20 gold Double Eagle coins which lacked the motto, “In God We Trust.”  In a letter published by The New York Times, Roosevelt explained that his objection to the motto on coinage wasn’t because he didn’t believe in God, but because he did!  He wrote:

“My own feeling in the matter is due to my very firm conviction that to put such a motto on coins, or to use it in any kindred manner, not only does no good, but does positive harm, and is in fact irreverence, which comes dangerously close to sacrilege.  A beautiful and solemn sentence such as the one in question should be treated and uttered only with that fine reverence which necessarily implies a certain exaltation of spirit… Any use which tends to cheapen it, and, above all, any use which tends to secure its being treated in a spirit of levity, is from every standpoint profoundly to be regretted.”

After defending the inscription of the motto on national monuments, halls of justice, etc., Roosevelt continued:

“But it seems to me eminently unwise to cheapen such a motto by use on coins, just as it would be to cheapen it by use on postage stamps or in advertisements… If Congress alters the law and directs me to replace on the coins the sentence in question, the direction will be immediately put into effect, but I very earnestly trust that the religious sentiment of the country, the spirit of reverence in the country, will prevent any such action being taken.”

Did you get that?  Roosevelt thought that reverent believers should insist that God’s name not be imprinted on coins lest the Name be cheapened, trivialized, profaned, and rendered meaningless, save for sentimentality and superstition.  I think Teddy was right!

Civil religion is a shallow substitute for genuine faith.  It offers us a “ceremonial deity,” a least-common-denominator god who means anything you want him to mean, including nothing.  That is not the God I serve!

For more thoughts on the subject, you can go back and read my post Does God Want His Name on Our Money?      

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