Gustave Niebuhr has a nice reflection on the House of Representative’s attempt to get “In God We Trust” reaffirmed as our national motto.
But a more pertinent question — and an enduring one for the country — is, who is this God in whom we are called to place our trust? (I’m not talking about religious pluralism here, the important theological differences among the believing population, whose members call themselves Christians, Jews, Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus, etc.)
The God whose name shows up on our currency and is at the heart of the proposed legislation is, I’m inclined to believe, a national deity, considered by Americans as our special guardian. In other words, this is not the biblical God, but a deity invoked by politicians who close their speeches with a ritual plea, “God Bless America.” I hear that as a prayer — and sometimes it sounds foreshortened, with the longer version being, “America’s God, Bless America.”
Forty-four years ago, the eminent sociologist Robert Bellah wrote a wonderfully perceptive and influential essay about Americans’ “civil religion,” which he identified as a set of beliefs and rituals that draw some inspiration from Christianity and Judaism, but which exist separately from them. This faith includes a God invoked on public ceremonial occasions, has its own roster of martyrs (heroes fallen, defending the nation) and celebrates its own holidays (especially, Memorial Day).
But there’s another way to look at “In God We Trust,” and it’s one that ought to be of real concern to religionists.
Twice in the last three decades, the Supreme Court has specifically identified that phrase as being void of substantive sacred meaning. The justices describe the phrase as “ceremonial deism.” The late Justice William Brennan wrote that the motto falls into a category of public expression that has “lost through rote repetition any significant religious content.”
If you are a believing monotheist, is that how you want God’s name treated?
Compare that with the God described by Abraham Lincoln in his Second Inaugural Address, a deity that Lincoln described as sovereign, mysterious, and possessed of a power of judgment beyond any human control.
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