Fall 2003, Vol. 6, No. 3

Table of Contents
Fall 2003

Quick Links:
Articles in this issue

From the Editor:
Under Whatever

The Anglican Crackup

The View From Lagos

Special Supplement:
Religion and the 2004 Election

The Case of Chaplain Yee

Instructions From the Vatican

The Social Gospel Lays an Egg in Alabama

God and the EU Charter

Mel Gibson, the Scribes, and the Pharisees

Gibson and Traditionalist Catholicism

The Religion of Country


From the Editor:

Under Whatever
By Mark Silk

 In West Virginia Board of Education v. Barnette (1943), the Supreme Court permitted public school students with religious scruples to opt out of reciting the Pledge of Allegiance. “If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation,” wrote Justice Jackson for the majority, “it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein.”

The new Pledge case, Elk Grove Unified School District v. Newdow, will determine whether a public school district can require teachers to “lead willing students” in a Pledge that, 11 years after Barnette, Congress expanded to include the avowal “under God.” It is a case that has not gladdened the hearts of the lawyers who patrol the borders of church and state for the likes of the American Civil Liberties Union and the American Jewish Congress (AJC).

“I think every one of us devoutly wishes this case had never been brought,” the AJC’s lawyer, Marc Stern, told Mary Kitch of the Portland Oregonian. “Newdow might be right in a platonic sense…but in the messy world in which we live, it’s hard to see how any good can come of it.”

Specifically, Stern and company believe that having students say “one nation under God” can indeed be considered a violation of the First Amendment’s injunction that Congress “make no law respecting an establishment of religion.” At the same time, they fear that if the Court upholds the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals’ anti-“under God” decision, Congress would craft a constitutional amendment that not only allows pledging in school but also opens the door to teacher-led prayer and other horribles.

Lest Stern’s sense of the messiness of the world be doubted, it’s worth recalling that in March, after the 9th Circuit’s ruling, the House of Representatives passed a non-biding resolution in favor of school recitation of the Pledge by a vote of 400-7. In October, a petition supporting the Pledge containing half a million electronic signatures was presented to the president, the Congress, and the Supreme Court by the conservative website

So the AJC, in its amicus curiae brief, takes the position that the Court should reverse Newdow, on the grounds that “under God” in the Pledge has become so empty of religious content that it does not rise to the level of an establishment of religion. This view of “One Nation Under God,” “In God We Trust,” and other state-mandated acknowledgements of deity was inscribed in American jurisprudence by Justice Brennan, who in 1984 (in a phrase borrowed from Eugene Rostow) called it “ceremonial Deism.”

Within the ambit of ceremonial Deism, “God” serves, as they say, as an open signifier—a metaphysical Mad Lib that we are free to fill in with “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” or “Vishnu,” with “that than which nothing greater can be conceived” or “me, myself, and I.” That a sacred umbrella needs to be opened up over America from time to time, be it at a presidential inauguration or a Memorial Day exercise, is the way we do business here in the U.S. of A., and most of the time, it is to be presumed, no one pays much attention. But when the national weather turns stormy, as it did on 9/11, then the ceremonial performances become more important, and the struggles to define their meaning break out.

During World War II, murderous anti-Semitism brought the idea of a “Judeo-Christian tradition” into general use as a way of defining America’s (and the West’s) religious heritage in a more inclusive way than just “Christian.” After the war, “Judeo-Christian” became a shibboleth, as in President-elect Eisenhower’s famous comment in December 1952, “Our form of government has no sense unless it is founded in a deeply felt religious faith. With us of course it is the Judeo-Christian concept, but it must be a religion that all men are created equal.”

One might say that it was the Judeo-Christian God that, for Cold War purposes, Congress inserted into the Pledge and also stamped on all U.S. coinage and paper currency, and enshrined in a national motto. Yet as the years passed, a heightened sense of religious pluralism undermined the inclusivity of Judeo-Christian language.

In September Secretary of State Colin Powell, asked on the Charlie Rose Show what kind of government Iraq should have, responded that he expected it to be “an Islamic country by faith, just as we are a Judeo-Christian…well, it’s hard to tell any more, but we are a country of many faiths now.”

Yet on the religious right, where “Judeo-Christian” has been warmly embraced for a couple of decades, they don’t find it hard to tell, or at least they don’t want to find it  so. The 5,300-pound Ten Commandments rock that Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore installed in the lobby of the courthouse in Montgomery was a proclamation not of ceremonial Deism but of a determinedly Judeo-Christian God. (The inscription begins with what in Judaism is considered the first of the commandments—or in Hebrew, “the sayings”: “I am the Lord thy God.”)

After being kicked out of office by a state ethics panel for refusing a federal court order to remove the rock November 13, Moore said that unless states took a stand “public acknowledgment of God will be taken from us. In God we trust will be taken from our money and one nation under God from our pledge.”

Then there was Gen. William “Jerry” Boykin, the deputy secretary of defense for military intelligence, who ran into trouble for giving speeches to various evangelical Christian groups in which he drew invidious distinctions between America’s religious regime and that of our Muslim adversaries.

We’re a Christian nation, because our foundation and our roots are Judeo-Christian…and the enemy is a guy named Satan,” Boykin said on one of these occasions. Discussing a 1993 battle with a Muslim militia leader in Somalia, he remarked, “I knew that my God was bigger than his. I knew that my God was a real God, and his was an idol.”

After keeping mum for several days while the controversy over Boykin mounted, President Bush eventually reported to reporters that he had told a group of Muslim clerics in Indonesia that he disagreed: “I said, ‘He didn’t reflect my opinion. Look, it just doesn’t reflect what the government thinks.’ I think they were pleased to hear that.” But heading into an election year, the administration was loath to bring the hammer down too hard on the religious right’s conceptualization of the national creed.

In this brave new 21st century we have, as a nation, moved from a bipolar world where it was us against the godless to one where the enemy defines itself as acting on behalf of God. This has, willy-nilly, posed a challenge to a national faith that for over half a century defined itself in ever more religiously inclusive terms. 

For the moment, at any rate, most Americans do not appear interested in restricting our national allegiance to one understanding of God. Even in Alabama, where in October 76 percent of pollees favored putting the Ten Commandments in government places and 88 percent supported prayer in school, 79 percent said that in the latter case prayers that were not Christian or Jewish should be allowed.

The open signifier remains dear to our hearts.






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