One Nation Over God

Tom Littrell
Jun 9, 2017 · 9 min read
John F. Kennedy delivers the State of the Union address, 1963.

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I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America and to the Republic for which it stands, one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.

The Pledge of Allegiance is repeated daily in many U.S. institutions and alludes to the existence of a God, along with our country’s motto: “In God We Trust.” In a secular nation, how has such a contentious entity become ingrained in the framework of our government?

The easy answer is that Judeo-Christian ideals are embedded into the U.S. Constitution and, as such, remain a pertinent point of reference in legal precedent and policy. This becomes a huge problem when the idea of a monotheistic — specifically Abrahamic — God is normalized through constant media exposure, symbolism, canonical text, and ritual.

“In God We Trust” is engraved in stone in the House Chamber — where the entire nation often tunes in to hear the State of the Union and other such formal addresses. Take out any U.S. paper money and find the same words inscribed. The word “God” is pervasive, and understanding its implications is crucial to realizing the influence of Christianity on our “secular” government, society, and public and private lives.

It is often necessary in research to trace ideologies back from whence they were adopted, and so, to begin a discourse on religious symbolism in the United States, the religious history of the country must be examined. When the Puritans arrived in the 1620s to establish colonies, they carried with them a separatist brand of religion — but a brand of Christianity nonetheless. In 1779, Thomas Jefferson wrote, “But it does me no injury for my neighbour to say there are twenty gods or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg,” but words are trivial compared to the hegemonic notions set in place even years before our constitution was signed.

No Establishment Clause can ensure religious freedom when other basic freedoms are not afforded to all citizens. Anthropologist Talal Asad asserts that we are not living in a direct-access society, and, as such, liberty belongs only to those in power, according to hegemony.

What is hegemony? To operationalize the term beyond its standard definition of “preponderant influence or authority over others,” we must turn to social scientist James Lull, who explains hegemony as a method rather than a tool of dominance. Understanding influence through method is a sure way to expose the hypocrisy of a “secular” United States. Lull states:

Hegemony is not a direct stimulation of thought or action, but, according to [cultural theorist] Stuart Hall, is a “framing [of] all competing definitions of reality within [the dominant class’] range, bringing all alternatives within their horizons of thought.”

Thomas Jefferson need not be bothered by his neighbor’s religious ideology, because their direct beliefs have no footing in an institution — or a nation, for that matter — where an opposing ideology is already in place. The Puritans could build a country that would self-proclaim its exercise of religious freedom because the freedoms they gained were relative to the nation from which they separated, and where there is relative freedom, there is tolerance.

Kent Greenawalt, a constitutional law professor at Columbia Law School, writes about tolerance in Religion and the Constitution. He asserts that schools should teach students “to be tolerant of opposing views (at least in public life), to be honest, and so on.” Berkeley professor Wendy Brown is starkly against the idea of teaching tolerance, because it does not stand for peace; rather, it reinforces the dominance of the tolerant culture by designating other cultures or beliefs as barbaric.

Though one might dismiss certain religious symbolism such as the House Chamber’s inscription as of solely historical or traditional significance, it is apparent that tradition carries on today in the words of law professors such as Greenawalt. To represent through imagery is one form of expression, and to pass on through education is entirely different; yet together, multiple forms of exposure to ideology frame reality in such a way as to establish a predominant mindset.

The qualities of a Judeo-Christian God permeate all facets of our nation in ways that work in tandem to protect America’s old religious values with the facade of secularism, keeping the credulous at bay. Greenawalt’s discussion of tolerance is less prominent in Religion and the Constitution than in his suggestion for the U.S. government to further limit aid to religious organizations. He highlights issues associated with giving financial resources to religious institutions that offer “neutral” and “secular” services.

To treat religious groups worse than other federal aid–receiving groups in the same vein would be to discriminate against religion. The caveat is that religion as a tool of belief allows there to be those who do not believe and, similarly, those who oppose religious groups receiving any type of federal aid. Federal aid to religious groups ties religion to government — it is antithetical to a secular system.

Greenawalt’s solution to this paradox is that, “the Establishment Clause should be regarded as about institutional relations, not about religious ideas.” This way, religious dominance will become disestablished institutionally while not impeding upon the religious freedoms of individuals. Target the public sphere, and nurture the private.

As idyllic as this sounds, it is impossible to allow freedom of religious thought in a publicly secular nation. The academically constructed realms of public and private do not exist; rather, individuals enter the public sphere and enter into public debate utilizing the ideologies they have developed privately. Similarly, sociologist José Casanova argues that church and state are constantly influencing one another, and that politics are religious while religion is political. If political ideologies did not stem from religion, what would provide the moral compass in lawmaking?

Religion scholar S. Vernon McCasland reiterates constitutional religiosity:

The idea that personality is sacred and that every citizen has rights that come from God is basic. On this there can be no compromise in a democracy.

McCasland could not be any more wrong.

God-given rights are among the most complex scholarly subjects with no clear, measurable answer. No methodology of any discipline can determine what rights should be endowed upon all of humanity, let alone those given by a supposed God or those that aim to foster democracy. Only the philosophies of law and religion can even hope to scratch the surface of such a topic. And yet God and His (Her, Their, Its) rights have been adopted by an entire nation which perpetuates them. Is there the possibility of compromise between the secular and religiously minded?

Late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia promoted a doctrine of “ceremonial deism,” which calls for a practical secular government with the endorsement of traditionally religious symbolism and ceremonial rituals, such as the presidential swearing-in during inauguration. One implication of any such religious feature by a so-called secular government is that persons who choose not to subscribe to or openly criticize religiosity may be perceived as lesser citizens. Again, the United States is not a direct-access society.

In a nation-state that sanctifies a deity yet identifies as secular, who has access to the democratic process? To answer this, recall hegemony. Hegemony works subliminally, not overtly — it works by normalizing beliefs through constant and diverse exposure that renders believing in a concept common sense. Those who have access to democracy in the United States are those for whom Judeo-Christian ideals are common sense. As backup, these privileged persons need not look further than the aforementioned symbolism scattered throughout the nation.

For the minority, access is limited. Take the 1956 case that is the subject of the book Ellery’s Protest, for example. Ellery Frank Schempp was a 16-year-old Unitarian Protestant growing up in a Pennsylvania school system that favored the King James version of the Bible. Schempp’s family did not accept the teachings of this version, so he decided to protest by reading the Koran during recitation of the Bible. This opened a case that went to the Supreme Court, which ruled, “Recitation of the Lord’s Prayer in Abington Senior High and in other public schools throughout the United States violated the First Amendment’s guarantee of religious freedom.”

This summary of Schempp’s journey through the United States legal system is exceptionally truncated compared to what he and his family went through. Even so, the Court ruled in his favor because Schempp was a Christian pushing back against another form of Christianity. This case stands mainly as a religious issue despite being suffused with issues of education and so on. What happens when religion is mixed with nationalism?

West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette, a case dating back to 1943, is a pinnacle example of American secularity. In it, the Supreme Court ruled that compelling students to salute the flag and recite the Pledge of Allegiance is unconstitutional and violates First Amendment rights. It stands to question why so many Americans face religious persecution today despite laws that promise certain freedoms.

In the 2006 documentary Divided We Fall, Sharat Raju exposes the tragedies of Sikhs mistaken for Muslim extremists. The documentary is proof that old religious ties in America run deeper than the law can hope to mend. This draws back to a nation’s necessity to identify a moral compass. Though religion can mean many things, the nature of religion is such that it guides behavior by orthopraxy and mindset by orthodoxy. NYU professor of liberal studies Mitchell Meltzer says:

The Constitution is not merely a legal or political document…it is as much cosmogonical as it is governmental…It attempts to answer…how to begin from blankness, how to establish a new identity, how to consciously found a civilisational life without inhibiting arbitrariness.

It is no wonder that the United States holds onto religious traditional symbolism — the country was founded by religious people who dissented from the views of their home country. The problem today is that people who challenge the national moral compass have no place to run, and any place that attempts to adopt a one-size-fits-all approach cannot enforce its unrealistic commandments—for example, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The ultimate challenge is to take national identity with a grain of salt, thereby acknowledging religious history yet not adhering to it, and then to cultivate civility and companionship among those with opposing ideologies. While this is much easier said than done, globalization has forced (allowed?) international communities to communicate and interrelate more rapidly than ever.

It is impossible to seek objectivity by removing the lens through which a person views reality. It is not impossible to attempt to see through the lenses of others by educating oneself and recognizing national religious symbolism for what it is. Secularism does not work because societies require a source of moral guidance, and varying environments in which people are raised create different senses of morality. To ignore this would be to ignore diversity. Not everyone attends schools like that of Ellery Schempp. Not everyone is attuned to the abundance of the word “God.”

Sociologist Robert Wuthnow says, “Most people who believe that all religions are the same have not taken the time to gain much familiarity with the various religions and thus to learn how they are different.” And that is the only way to ensure any type of religious freedom — to learn. Though America’s Christian roots are manifest, nearly one-third of the country identifies as non-Christian. Professors like Kent Greenawalt cannot continue to accept and proliferate tolerance as the answer to religious diversity. If America wishes to be truly secular, it may print “In God We Trust” on its money, but the country must not treat its religious minority as other.

Of course, this paper was written through the Western lens of a student of religion who recognizes that diversity is not on everyone’s wish list. If any concept should be retained, it is that diversity, secularism, nationalism, and modernity are all ideologies in themselves that cannot appease the population as long as the population remains diverse—and we, as humans, most certainly are.

Religion is a sticky subject. I’ve said a lot you may disagree with. Please indulge me with your opinion! If you enjoyed this snippet on secularism, hold tight for the next installment in the series. Now that you’re armed with background and have thoughts a-stirring, we can take the discussion into tech territory. God, meet Artificial Intelligence.

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Coding the Creator
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Coding the Creator

About this Collection

Coding the Creator

The idea of an ultimate being has ridden with humanity for centuries, withstanding the test of time. Now, as humans are playing god by creating artificial intelligence and employing big data, who or what is in control? This series delves into the particularities of secularism at the intersection of religion and technology, plugging AI and cloud computing into new definitions of ultimacy.

The idea of an ultimate being has ridden with humanity for centuries, withstanding the test of time. Now, as humans are playing god by creating artificial intelligence and employing big data, who or what is in control? This series delves into the particularities of secularism at the intersection of religion and technology, plugging AI and cloud computing into new definitions of ultimacy.

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