Under Which God? — The Pledge, Public Prayer, and Ceremonial Deism

The Story: Two recent suveys show that when it comes to religion in the public square, most Americans are more comfortable with civil religion than with Christianity.

Uncle Sam in PrayerThe Background: A new study by Lifeway Research finds that 85% of Americans want to keep “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance, including 94% of self-identified born again, evangelical, or fundamentalist Christian. Only 8% of Americans want to remove “under God” from the Pledge of Allegiance.

A related poll by Fairleigh Dickinson University finds that American voters accept prayer in official, public meetings. In the survey, 73% percent of voters say “prayer at public meetings is fine as long as the public officials are not favoring some beliefs over others.” Just one-quarter (23%) say “public meetings shouldn’t have any prayers at all because prayers by definition suggest one belief or another.”

(Note: The skewed poll question limits the usefulness of the findings. The question asked was, “Some say public meetings shouldn’t have any prayers at all because prayers by definition suggest one belief or another. Others say prayer at public meetings is fine as long as the public officials are not favoring some beliefs over others. Which comes closer to your view.” A third option should have been offered: Public prayers are fine even if they favor some beliefs over others.”)

Why It Matters: Jean Jacques Rousseau, who coined the phrase “civil religion” in his treatise, On the Social Contract (1762), made the observation that in ancient times all governments were a form of theocracy with each nation serving their own god. States, therefore, never had religious wars since the governments “made no distinction between its gods and its laws.” Rousseau finds the genius of the Roman Empire was its ability to absorb both the nations and their gods and transform them into one pagan religion. This changed, he claims, with the appearance of Christ:

It was in these circumstances that Jesus came to set up on earth a spiritual kingdom, which, by separating the theological from the political system, made the State no longer one, and brought about the internal divisions which have never ceased to trouble Christian peoples. As the new idea of a kingdom of the other world could never have occurred to pagans, they always looked on the Christians as really rebels, who, while feigning to submit, were only waiting for the chance to make themselves independent and their masters, and to usurp by guile the authority they pretended in their weakness to respect. This was the cause of the persecutions.

Rousseau claims that this division between religion and the state “made all good polity impossible in Christian States; and men have never succeeded in finding out whether they were bound to obey the master or the priest.” He believed that political leaders tried to restore this lost ideal but have been unsuccessful because of the influence of Christianity, which put devotion to God above that of the State. Since religious devotion is not only useful to the state but can become a hindrance to the state’s authority, a third way was needed—civil religion:

There is therefore a purely civil profession of faith of which the Sovereign should fix the articles, not exactly as religious dogmas, but as social sentiments without which a man cannot be a good citizen or a faithful subject. While it can compel no one to believe them, it can banish from the State whoever does not believe them — it can banish him, not for impiety, but as an anti-social being, incapable of truly loving the laws and justice, and of sacrificing, at need, his life to his duty. If any one, after publicly recognizing these dogmas, behaves as if he does not believe them, let him be punished by death: he has committed the worst of all crimes, that of lying before the law.

The dogmas of civil religion ought to be few, simple, and exactly worded, without explanation or commentary. The existence of a mighty, intelligent and beneficent Divinity, possessed of foresight and providence, the life to come, the happiness of the just, the punishment of the wicked, the sanctity of the social contract and the laws: these are its positive dogmas. Its negative dogmas I confine to one, intolerance, which is a part of the cults we have rejected.

America has done a fine job of incorporating Rousseau’s “dogmas of civil religion,” keeping them “few, simple, and exactly worded.” We have restricted such sentiments to the most unobtrusive areas, allowing “In God We Trust’ to be printed on our coins and the phrase “under God” to slip in our Pledge of Allegiance (which, curiously, isn’t a pledge of “allegiance” to God but to a flag). We allow recognition for a “Divinity, possessed of foresight and providence” but what we don’t allow is the recognition of Jesus as God. And that is what should give Christians pause.

There is a vast and unbridgeable chasm between America’s civil religion and Christianity. If we claim that “under God” refers only to the Christian, Trinitarian conception of God we are either being unduly intolerant or, more likely, simply kidding ourselves. Do we truly think that the Hindu, Wiccan, or Buddhist is claiming to be under the same deity as we are? We can’t claim, as Paul did on Mars Hill, that the “unknown god” they are worshiping is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. They have heard of Jesus — and reject him as God.

The Pledge is a secular document and the “under god” is referring to the Divinity of our country’s civil religion. Just as the pagan religion of the Roman Empire was able to incorporate other gods and give them familiar names, the civil religion provides an umbrella for all beliefs to submit under one nondescript, fill-in-the-blank term.

Don’t get me wrong: I think we need to stand firm on allowing religion into the “naked public square.” But we should do so defending our real religious beliefs rather than a toothless imitation. If we pray in the public square, we should have no qualms about using the true name of the God to whom we are praying.

Our God is a jealous God and is unlikely to look favorably upon idolatry even when it is put to good service. While we should be as tolerant of civil religion as we are of other beliefs, we should be cautious about submitting to it ourselves. That is not to say that we can’t say the Pledge or listen to a non-sectarian prayer and think of the one true God. But we should keep in mind that this fight over ceremonial deism isn’t our fight and the “god” of America’s civil religion is not the God who died on the Cross.

  • Keith

    If the majority of Americans don’t truly trust in God, then is it not blasphemy to say we do on our coins?

  • http://almostreadytogoamish.blogspot.com/ Johnny

    I’m a Christian who wouldn’t mind having it removed because it is a dark and grizzly association to equate this nations endlessly bloody history with my faith in God.

    • Tim

      Our faith is based on the sacrificial offering of Christ’s blood. The history of the followers of Jesus is stained with the blood of millions of martyrs. Are you unable to distinguish between the blood that flows from the permit of justice and the blood that flows from the pursuit of thirst for power and manipulation? What is it about blood that turns you away from faith in God? Is the Bible you read a bloodless book or one with blood from cover to cover?

      • Christian Vagabond

        He’s talking about the genocide of the Native Americans.

    • TommyH

      I’ve been saying the same thing for a couple years. Thank you.

  • siege44

    I think it’s fairly easy to prove from history that the God referred to in our pledge and on our money is the Christian God, even if the people reciting the pledge and spending the money today are far removed from Christian beliefs

    • paulewog

      The pledge wasn’t around until 1892. “Under God” wasn’t actually there until 1954, apparently in response to communism.

      In God We Trust first appeared on coins in 1864, paper in 1957, though it appears to find its roots in the Star Spangled Banner.

      All that aside, if by “Christian” God you mean “a God that is loosely based on ideas from the Bible,” then I’d agree… but that’s like saying that most Americans are “Christian” and “believe in God.” Which many, incidentally, do, because “Christian” doesn’t really mean “a follower of the [biblical] Christ” anymore. It just means … well, not atheist and not Muslim nor any sort of eastern religion.

  • Saints and Sceptics

    This is a very good analysis and a strong argument. I don’t know if you have been following British politics recently, but David Cameron has created a row by calling Britain a Christian nation ( http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/religion/10777270/David-Cameron-fuelling-sectarian-division-by-bringing-God-into-politics.html )

    Cameron’s secular critics are overstating their case (

    http://www.saintsandsceptics.org/cameron-christian-society-and-christian-freedom/ ).

    However, I cannot see the difference between Cameron’s vision for the church and the “civil religion” you describe above. ( http://www.churchtimes.co.uk/articles/2014/17-april/comment/opinion/my-faith-in-the-church-of-england )

    It would be good if you could write a little more on civil religion – it has implications for your brethren “across the pond”!


    • Maria

      Laurence Vance has written numerous articles, books, and he has some videos on YouTube where he gives talks on the same subject – mostly concerning Christianity and war. You should look him up.

  • Sparx29

    I think you would be hard pressed to prove that the intent of the founders and those who modified the pledge where talking of any other God then the Christian one. The God referred to throughout American history has always been the Christian God, its part of the American culture. Today is a slightly different world but I would still fair to guess that most in America know which God the pledge and American coinage is referring to. People Make a Big Deal of Deism in the founding but it was an idea that feel away not long after the founding and was certainly not the majority position of the founders.

  • Matt

    It’s interesting to me (in a happily surprised way) that the Neo-Reformed folk are coming to this understanding. This is something that we Anabaptists have been saying for centuries with the result being primarily snide derision from the major Protestant groups. Now that Christendom and the notion of a “Christian Nation” is quickly fading it seems others are taking a second-look at a Biblical reading of the Christian’s relation to state and culture. That’s a good thing.

    • Tim

      The reality that the Christian foundation of our nation is fading over the years in no way negates the power of it’s founding and unique setup with rights flowing from God rather than the state. Romans 13 gives us God’s design on the state. There is no contradiction there. Praise God we have a state that puts us in the drivers seat to determine it’s direction. That’s a good thing unless you have a longing for a king like Isreal did.

      • Christian Vagabond

        Actually, if you want to take Romans 13 seriously, there should have never been a revolution in the first place.

  • Guest

    I think you should take it a bit further and address Christians supporting America’s wars.

  • casey

    Perhaps the worst of it is the degree to which this Civil Religion has infiltrated our evangelical churches as seen by celebrations of and pledges to the US flag and military in our corporate worship services.

    • Christian Vagabond

      That bothers me, too. I don’t think churches should sing patriotic songs during worship services, even on the 4th of July.

  • http://flamingfundamentalist.blogspot.com/ Curt Day

    I think a good distinction was made at the end. We should note how Jesus and Paul regarded society. Both felt it was a dumping ground for those who could not be members in good standing in the church. So society must be free of supporting or providing Church discipline. Past efforts by esteemed spiritual forefathers to have society to provide supplemental discipline for the Church ended in disaster because as society was called on to do so, the Church began to exercise other disciplines besides the spiritual ones, such as excommunication, authorized by the Scriptures.

    At the same time, those in any church are also members of society. We need to try to influence society without leaving behind a negative track record for other Christians to follow. Just perhaps the stats supporting a nonChristian civil religion is the result of the track record provided by America’s present and past Christians. History shows that past rejections of God in some countries is because the Church had aligned itself with power and wealth or tried to rule over unbelievers.

    So our job is to share the Gospel in the public square that sometimes serves as the alter for the god of the civic religion. We need to do so without contributing to a negative track record for future Christians. And perhaps the best way to share the Gospel is to work side by side with adherents of civil religion so that our sharing and how we work with testifies Christ and the Gospel. And we should note that while civic religion will be based in the flattery of its adherents, the highest flattery we can possibly receive from Christianity is that we are sinners saved by grace.

  • Dan Porter

    Bravo! Important insight. It is only a step to understanding the myth of religious neutrality (Clouser 2005). Everybody is religious, including schoolteachers, professors, talking heads, etc. It is just a matter of which religion, not “the schools or public square are neutral or secular, so don’t bring religion into the conversation.” It is already there and you, Joe, have highlighted this. Thanks!

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  • George

    What if you believe in a polytheistic religion? Shouldn’t we say “Under the Gods”?

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  • RaymondSwenson

    The public theology of America was crystallized in the Declaration of Independence, which announced the relationship between the people of the nation and the Creator who made them and endowed them with unalienable rights, including life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. As opposed to the claim of the King of England to rule by divine right, the people declared a direct relationship with deity, rendering kings as subcontractors to the people.

    The Star Spangled Banner started as a poem whose concluding verse sees the final victory of America (at least its survival outside the British Empire) as a blessing from God, saying “And this be our motto: In God Is Our Trust.”

    In the Gettysburg Address, as actually spoken and recorded, and engraved on one wall of the Lincoln Memorial, the president said that we should resolve “that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom; and that government of the people, by the people, and for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

    These are just the high points of America’s civil religion, also affirmed in Thanksgiving Day proclamations, and prayers for victory on D-Day, and in Reagan’s quotation of the poem High Flight on the day the Challenger exploded, and Bush’s quotation from Isaiah when the Columbia burned up on reentry, in the plea for God to save the Supreme Court at each session, and the prayers of congressional chaplains.

    The American sense has been that God does not serve America, but that America seeks to serve God. In contrast to nations with established churches, it is an attitude that engenders humility, and tempers loyalty to nation with loyalty to principles, such as the equality of all men and women before the law. We are a nation with a mission from God, to preserve freedom and equality as He gave them to us.

    • Christian Vagabond

      Americans are a lot of good things, but one thing they’ve never been (in terms of foreign policy) is humble. Sometimes this has good results, but usually it has bad results.

      Simply put, America’s theology is the sum total of all of its citizens beliefs at any given time. Back when the colonies are first settled, you could say that the nation was mostly Protestant. Back when Reagan was president, you could say that it was mostly Mainline Christian and Catholic. Now it’s more diverse than ever, with most being Catholic or Unaffiliated (aka the “nones”). If, in the future, the majority of the nation’s citizens are buddhist, then we will be a Buddhist nation. And that’s how its designed: there is no state religion.

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