Columnists > Voices

Knick-knack of civil religion

Does a pledge to a god that everyone can accept honor the one true God?

Issue: "Sciavo: Saved by the bill," Nov. 1, 2003

WITH THE SUPREME COURT'S DECISION A FEW days ago to review the unpopular ruling of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals to remove the phrase "under God" from the Pledge of Allegiance, it's fair to ask: Is there a serious Christian in the whole country cheering for the 9th Circuit Court to be sustained?

It's hard to imagine. Secularism has a big enough head of steam. It doesn't need still another boost from the Supreme Court.

Besides, the folks out in California who started this round of silliness need to be brought up short. I heard Michael Newdow in a debate last year; he's the fellow (he openly calls himself an atheist) who didn't want his daughter to have to say "under God" while the pledge was being recited by her class in a public school. So he sued to have the two offensive words removed. In the debate, Dr. Newdow was arrogant, superficial, and wantonly blasphemous.

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So let me make it clear: I have no sympathy whatsoever with those who are challenging the existing wording in the Pledge of Allegiance. They are obnoxious and wrong.

At the same time, I question the time and energy some Christians are spending trying to hang on to such knick-knacks of civil religion. I call them knick-knacks because they have so little to do with the central task of maintaining the household of biblical Christian faith.

Indeed, the issue may be even more serious than that. To point in the general direction of "God," while failing to say which God we mean and who He really is, may be to lead people into the trap of worshipping and developing false confidence in an altogether false god.

The evidence is overwhelming that from the earliest days of our nation, the God of the Bible has been kept on the sidelines. While it's true that the writers of our founding documents scattered elegant references to "God" through their language, specific history also tells us that they were careful to reject any suggestion that Jesus Christ is that very God. It was not mere forgetfulness or neglect on their part; it was a conscious choice.

You get a hint of that when you analyze the otherwise graceful phrase, "of nature and of nature's God." However much we in our secularist context might appreciate the fact that God gets any mention at all, He is still brought into this sentence rather at the last minute and through the back door. It's as though God is a subset of nature rather than the other way around.

Exactly what do we expect the true God to think when we trim Him down so that He fits some pattern the public insists on? Is the Lord of the universe flattered when we sing "God Bless America" after having made sure there's no reference in the song to the one the Bible calls "King of kings"? It is, after all, a god quite pleasing to the Unitarians that we have installed as part of our national folklore. And it is precisely such a false god that Jehovah has in mind when He says in the very first of the Ten Commandments, "You shall have no other gods before Me."

All this, I admit, puts thoughtful Christians in something of a bind. It's a conundrum that leads to this difficult question: Who is more likely to end up coming to true faith-a pagan or a nominalist? Someone who pretty much rejects the idea of any personal God as part of his normal life, or someone who generally accepts the idea but has consciously chosen not to take it too seriously? Michael Newdow or Thomas Jefferson?

I'm not sure we can ever know the answer to such a question. God draws people to Himself from all sorts of backgrounds and inclinations. But that happy fact should never prompt us to think, even for an instant, that He is pleased when we deliberately marginalize Him. As John Piper notes, God is not a person who appreciates being kept on the edge of the discussion.

So is God really being honored when schoolchildren pause, between commas, and say, "under God"? Not for a second will I side with those who want to take the two words out of the pledge. But neither do I want to presume that it's the praise the God of the Bible is looking for.

Joel Belz
Joel Belz

Joel, WORLD's founder, writes a regular column for the magazine and contributes commentaries for The World and Everything in It. He is also the author of Consider These Things.


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