Under God and Over

By PaulT / December 19, 2017

An oldie, but a goodie in that it’s stuck with me ever since reading this column. A full read is well worth the time spent, but here’s a “Reader’s Digest” version if I dare try to condense it …

ยป New Republic: Under God And Over (Leon Wieseltier)

As I watched the Supreme Court discuss God with Michael A. Newdow, the atheist from California who was defending his victory in a lower court that had concurred with his view that the words “under God” should be stricken from the Pledge of Allegiance because it is a religious expression, and was therefore responding to the Bush administration’s petition to protect the theism in the Pledge, I remembered a shrewd and highly un-American observation that was included among the aphorisms in Either/Or: “The melancholy have the best sense of the comic, the opulent often the best sense of the rustic, the dissolute often the best sense of the moral, and the doubter often the best sense of the religious.”

The discussion that morning fully vindicated the majesty of the chamber, as legal themes gave way to metaphysical themes and philosophy bewitched the assembly. But something strange happened. Almost as soon as philosophy was invited, it was disinvited. It seemed to make everybody anxious, except the respondent. I had come to witness a disputation between religion’s enemies and religion’s friends. What I saw instead, with the exception of a single comment by Justice Souter, was a disputation between religion’s enemies, liberal and conservative. And this confirmed me in my conviction that the surest way to steal the meaning, and therefore the power, from religion is to deliver it to politics, to enslave it to public life.

The solicitor general stood before the Court to argue against the plain meaning of ordinary words. In the Pledge of Allegiance, the government insisted, the word “God” does not refer to God. It refers to a reference to God. The government’s argument, as it was stated in the brief filed by Theodore B. Olson, was made in two parts. The first part was about history, the second part was about society. “The Pledge’s reference to ‘a Nation under God,'” the solicitor general maintained, “is a statement about the Nation’s historical origins, its enduring political philosophy centered on the sovereignty of the individual.” The allegedly religious words in the Pledge are actually just “descriptive” — the term kept recurring in the discussion — of the mentality of the people who established the United States. As Olson told the Court, they are one of several “civic and ceremonial acknowledgments of the indisputable historical fact that caused the framers of our Constitution and the signers of the Declaration of Independence to say that they had the right to revolt and start a new country.”

There is no greater insult to religion than to expel strictness of thought from it. Yet such an expulsion is one of the traits of contemporary American religion, as the discussion at the Supreme Court demonstrated. Religion in America is more and more relaxed and “customized,” a jolly affair of hallowed self-affirmation, a religion of a holy whatever. Speaking about God is prized over thinking about God. Say “under God” even if you don’t mean under God. And if you mean under God, don’t be tricked into giving an account of what you mean by it. Before too long you have arrived at a sacralized cynicism: In his intervention at the Court, Justice Stevens recalled a devastating point from the fascinating brief submitted in support of Newdow by 32 Christian and Jewish clergy, which asserted that “if the briefs of the school district and the United States are to be taken seriously,” that is, if the words in the Pledge do not allude to God, “then every day they ask schoolchildren to violate [the] commandment” that “Thou shalt not take the Name of the Lord in vain.” Remember, those are not the Ten Suggestions. It is a very strange creed indeed that asks its votaries not to reflect too much about itself.

Everytime I see the latest outrage of the day: some court case where the alleged rights of Christians are being chipped away at, I keep coming back to Wieseltier’s column. Given the frequency of such outrages, perhaps it’s no surprise that Wieseltier’s argument has stuck with me since first reading this column. It’s as if the only way to securely “take back America for God” is to first describe how God has nothing to do with it.

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