"Ceremonial Deism: What Does it Mean to be ‘Under God’?"

July 4, 2010, Exodus 20:1-7, Mark 14:53-64

The Reverend Thomas C. Willadsen

Lord, speak through these words if they are worthy.  And if they are not worthy, come quickly and say something else.  Amen.

Each summer on the Sunday closest to July 4th I preach a sermon that addresses the place of religion in American culture.  Today is no exception.  My thoughts and conclusions may comes as a surprise.  This afternoon the text I am using this morning will appear on our congregation's website and as always, I am very interested in hearing your thoughts and comments.

A month before I graduated from college, the university announced that it would change the wording on our diplomas.  The words, “In the year of our Lord,” would no longer appear on diplomas issued by Northwestern University.  This made perfect sense to me.  Northwestern had severed its affiliation with the Methodist church years before.  It was no longer a Christian institution.  Furthermore, a great many of my classmates were not Christian, I do not know exactly, but I think it was about 25% of my graduating class identified themselves as followers of a different religious tradition—or no religious tradition at all.  A goodly number of my classmates did not regard “1986” as “the year of the Lord Jesus Christ.”  As a Christian, an American and a soon-to-be graduate of Northwestern University, I was not troubled at all by this change.  I did not think I was diminished in any way by it.   

One of my classmates, however, was troubled by the change.  He wrote a letter to the student newspaper in which he conceded that there are much more pressing issues to talk about—it was 1986 and this classmate had been arrested for demonstrating against apartheid— still he was disappointed that our diplomas would be without the soaring, ceremonial language that they had once used.  Our diplomas were becoming more common and he thought that was unfortunate.  Fast forward nearly 25 years.  I am a Presbyterian minister, and my classmate is a Roman Catholic priest.  We are still in touch; and we still disagree on this topic.  As a life-long Presbyterian I have no difficulty at all disagreeing with friends.  Two principles that shape Presbyterians, both of which appear in the first chapter of the Book of Order, are: “God alone is Lord of the conscience” [BoO G-1.0301(a]] and “men (and women) of good characters and principles may differ.” [BoO G-1.0305]  As I remembered our conversations about our diplomas, I dug out my diploma to see if my memory was accurate.  I was surprised to find that the words “In the year of our Lord” had been replaced by “A.D.”  It is widely believed that “A.D.” means “after death,” presumably after the death of Jesus Christ.  In fact it is an abbreviation for “anno Domini” which is Latin for “in the year of our Lord.”  This felt wrong to me.  It felt like Northwestern was being sneaky, pulling a fast one.  It felt to me that Northwestern had used a secret code to indicate that this diploma really is a Christian document after all.  It would have made me feel better if “A.D.” had been left off the diploma entirely. 

I know this is not a big deal.  Back in 1986, and last month when I exchanged emails with my classmate, we both kept our perspective.  And yet we also continued to believe that we were correct.  And we continue to believe that words matter.  Even words on ceremonial documents matter.  Writers and speakers make choices all the time about how to convey information.  When we gather for Bible Exploration we often find that a change of one or two words can subtly and profoundly shape our understanding of what the text of the Bible means.  You may remember several years ago when the 9th District Court of Appeals ruled that the words, “under God,” in the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag of the United States, were an unconstitutional “establishment” of religion, when the pledge was recited in public school classrooms.  The Court of Appeals did not rule that the pledge itself was unconstitutional, nor forbid its recitation, nor delete the words from the pledge.  People get very emotional when discussing this topic and we often do not speak with much precision, so I want to be as clear as I can be about the ruling.  The next time my Rotary Club met and recited the Pledge of Allegiance, some of my fellow club members shouted “under God” defiantly.  As a private social organization, the Rotary Club is simply not capable of violating the First Amendment, as a public school could. 

A later ruling by the Supreme Court said that the words “under God” could remain in the pledge, when recited in public schools, because they were considered “ceremonial deism.”  This ruling was something of a compromise, and perhaps it was a good compromise because neither side was happy with it.  I believe the concept of ceremonial deism is a profound confusion, illogical and self-contradictory.  Ceremonial deism is the name for the idea that says “sometimes when we use religious-sounding language we do not mean it religiously.”  For example, when describing a hard rain, some people say, “the heavens opened up.”  Now this phrase originates in the Book of Genesis [7:11], but today when people say it, what they mean is “it rained really hard,” without implying that they believe that heaven is God’s storehouse for rain.  My son had a sneezing fit last week, after each sneeze I said, “bless you.”  It feels rude to me not to do that, even though the custom of saying “God bless you” after someone sneezes is rooted in the belief that when one sneezes one’s soul briefly leaves his body.  Those around the person who sneezed should “bless” the sneezer, lest something bad happen to him before his soul returns to his body.  I don’t for a minute believe that one’s soul leaves the body—I don’t say, “bless you” with the same intent as people did 400 years ago, but I still say it.  I say it, but I don’t mean it.  We do things like this all the time.  We say things we don’t mean literally.  If you don’t believe me, try this, when the clerk at Pick ‘n’ Save says “Have a nice day.”  Answer her as though this really is a command, rather than a wish.  You could be snippy and say, “Don’t tell me what to do!”  or you could do what my mother does on occasion, simply say, “Thank you, I have other plans.” 

In the United States there are a lot of references to God that amount to ceremonial deism.  On the back of a dollar bill you find the words “in God we trust.”  The Supreme Court begins its sessions with the Marshall saying, “God save the United States and this honorable Court.”   Some communities place Christmas trees on public property—is a Christmas tree paid for by tax dollars an establishment of religion, or merely a holiday decoration, an instance of ceremonial deism?

Words have power.  And some words have more power than others.  Not all words are equal.  Christians and Jews know and believe this.  One of the 10 commandments, as translated in the New Revised Standard Version is “You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God.”  Perhaps that sentiment is conveyed more powerfully by the King James Version: “Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain.”  We believe that the word with the greatest power is the name of God.  The Commandments forbid our using the name of God in an empty or meaningless way. 

Take a look at the Gospel reading.  When Jesus is on trial before the chief priests and council, he commits what today we would call a capital offense, he says that he is the Son of the Blessed One.  The high priest himself follows the custom of his era and culture and uses a euphemism for the name of God.  Jesus is immediately found guilty of blasphemy and condemned to death.  All because of words he said.  These words had the power of life and death to the Jewish authorities in Jerusalem early in the first century. 

Words matter.  Words have power.  Some words have more power than others.

I’ll conclude with a history lesson about the two controversial words in the Pledge of Allegiance, “under God.”  Those words were added to the pledge during the 1950s, during the Cold War, when the United States was competing with the “godless” Soviet Union.  They were added to the pledge with the explicit intent of defining the United States as a religious country, in contrast with the Soviet Union.  From the vantage point of 2010, adding “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance had religious intent and thus, I would argue, reciting the pledge in public schools violates the First Amendment. 

To permit the words “under God” to remain in the pledge, as the Supreme Court has ruled, is to say that those words should not be taken literally, that the words “under God” have the same meaning and intention as “under the sky.”  They can remain because of poetic license, they sound nice, but they do not mean anything.  If that is the case, then as a Christian I am deeply offended.  My faith, part of which is encoded in the 10 Commandments, is diminished because we are saying these words emptily.  And to preserve both our integrity as a nation and our integrity as believers, these two words should be removed when the pledge is recited in public schools. 

I know that there are people here this morning who have not thought about this topic as I have.  I am confident that some of you believe that saying “under God” in the pledge to the flag is to be commended in public schools.  I hope you know that I am willing to talk further on this topic and that as a good Presbyterian I believe that “men and women of good characters and principles may” disagree.  But I also remind you that the United States is a much more diverse country in terms of religion and life-experience that we were even a decade ago.  From the time of this nation’s founding, Presbyterians have strongly and passionately argued for the separation of church and state.   The excerpt I am about to read from the Book of Order was written in 1788, before the Constitution was drafted and the First Amendment was in force:

“…we consider the rights of private judgment in all matters that respect religion, as universal and unalienable.  We do not even wish to see any religious constitution aided by the civil power, further than may be necessary for protection and security and at the same time, be equal and common to all others.”  Book of Order G-1.03001(b)  While as a Christian I believe that the United States is “under God”  [I believe all nations are equally, under God] I also know that there are other citizens of this nation who do not believe that.  Also as a Christian I believe that those two words mean something; that they are not to be said merely because they sound good together.  As a Presbyterian I do not want the government to favor any religious tradition over any other—even my own.  So as an American, a Christian, and a Presbyterian, I believe that public school students should not recite the Pledge of Allegiance to the American flag using the words “under God.”