Voices

Speaking of God

But when do our arbiters of propriety think we may

Issue: "Beginning of the end," March 29, 2003

THERE IS SOMETHING I HAVE TO TELL YOU ABOUT myself: I don't say "God bless you" when people sneeze. This is a habit (or nonhabit) that came bundled with my conversion experience when the guy who led me to the Lord said it was superstitious-and that's been good enough for me ever since.

You should not imagine that I am proud of this idiosyncratic stance or mistake it for courage. And indeed I have been known to bend once or twice in the last 25 years for particular sneezers (Paul's advice: "all things to all men"). Nor do I have a problem with folks who call down divine favor on me when the pollen count elicits violent spasmodic expirations. It's just a petit scruple of mine, let us say, for which I usually circumvent the social awkwardness by interjecting "Got a cold?" at the appropriate juncture.

Even at home I never made an issue of this; I just didn't say the thing. But now my older son, who has in later years jettisoned all other forms of righteousness, is trying hard to drill the alien three-word formula into his speech, having discovered its wider cultural mandate, and repudiated what seems to him the barbaric indoctrination of his youth. So here we have a fine kettle of fish: a self-styled heathen who calls on the divinity when people pass sinus air, and a Christian woman who goes mum about God when everyone else invokes Him.

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The same confusion is discernible in society at large. When is it OK to use God-words in America?

Immediately following 9/11, it was more than OK to say "God"; it was practically anathema not to. The expressways were plastered with "God Bless America" placards at five-mile intervals, with nary a care about breaching the firewall between church and state. President Bush on Sept. 14 of that year intoned at a National Day of Prayer and Remembrance, "We come before God to pray for the missing and the dead"-and got away with it.

Patrick Cubbage didn't get away with it. A former Vietnam combat veteran from Philadelphia, Mr. Cubbage was fired as honor guard at the Brig. Gen. William C. Doyle Veterans' Memorial Cemetery in Burlington County for saying at grave-site flag presentations, "God bless you and this family, and God bless the United States of America." He had pulled those words from the Department of Defense Flag Presentation Protocol. Shortly before his dismissal on Oct. 31, 2002, Mr. Cubbage was handed a copy of state regulations prohibiting "harassment or hostile environments" in the workplace. The vet's miscalculation is evident: He failed to see that the God-word-friendly mood engendered on Sept. 11 had by October of 2002 dissipated its capital. Who was to know?

I do know that on Sept. 7, 1774, the first U.S. Congress got away with a lot more than Mr. Cubbage. "O Lord our heavenly Father," its prayer began, "high and mighty King of kings, and Lord of lords, who dost from Thy throne behold all the dwellers on earth and reignest with power supreme control over all the kingdoms, empires, and governments, look down in mercy, we beseech Thee, on these our American States ..." Not your average generic God-speak.

Is it OK for a high-school kid to offer prayer before a football game or at a graduation? In the case of the Santa Fe Independent School Board, a federal district judge thought maybe he could make it OK by allowing "nonsectarian, nonproselytizing" prayer. But an astute dissenting judge pointed out that such government interference in the content of prayer is tantamount to federal "dalliance in prayer-writing."

Then the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals thought it could make things OK with an innovative distinction between a graduation ("significant once-in-a-lifetime event"), which warrants prayer, and a football game ("hardly the sober type of annual event that would be appropriately solemnized with prayer"), which does not. The Supreme Court in October of 2000 ruled that that wasn't OK either.

Yet that same Supreme Court boasts an inscription reading, "God Save the United States and this Honorable Court," which is apparently OK. And while we're on the subject, since "In God We Trust" is on the currency, wouldn't you think it's all right to keep "under God" in our Pledge of Allegiance? If you guessed "No," you are in line with the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco. If you guessed "Yes," you are in line with the swift reaction to that ruling by even liberal U.S. House and Senate members, who know political safety when they see it.

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