It was gratifying to hear recently that the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals finally ruled that the Pledge of Allegiance is constitutional. Atheist Michael Newdow had tried to cast it as a choice between God and country. And we all know that regardless of how bawdy our civil society may become we are not about to declare ourselves without God!
I like the easy way out the Supreme Court settled on some time ago: they call such apparent religiosity “ceremonial deism.” Works fine for separation of church and state issues, but veers dangerously toward fulfilling the biblical description of a society “in the last day,” that is described as “holding the form of religion but denying the power of it” (2 Timothy 3:1, 5, RSV).* Actually that is very close to how the Court sees ceremonial deism—religious language and symbols that have become so much a part of things that they have lost any spiritual meaning.
The apostle Paul was warning his young protégé Timothy of the times to come. Well, the Roman world of the first century A.D. was not exactly sweetness and light. It was a time of casual barbarism and depraved behavior. And Greece, where Paul tried with little success to speak of the Christ, was especially infamous for its licentiousness. But, according to Paul, the end times would be worse. He spoke of people who “will be lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, inhuman, implacable, slanderers, profligates, fierce, haters of good, treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God (2 Timothy 3:2-4, RSV).” Hmmm. I might not want to be labeled that way, nor would you, but it sounds uncannily like our days. I could easily check off that list by reading any daily newspaper.
So, at least according to the logic of Paul, we are in the last days. Moral meltdown, you might say. Yet we are diligent to remain religious. Or, as Paul put it, “holding the form of religion.” At the risk of mixing historical and logical metaphors, I have to say it puts me to mind of Plato and his cave allegory: sitting in veritable dark ages, we imagine that our shadowy corruption of religion is the real thing. Paul was right; it lacks power.
I thought of this conundrum of power recently as I read the startling news that the majority of gunsights used by U.S. armed forces have Bible texts engraved on them. Not engraved by the soldiers, but by the manufacturer. Not known by the military, we are told—but probably known by a few grunts who thought it appropriate. In fact, Michael Weinstein of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation reported that members of his group in the military have complained about the markings. They were told that weapons with these sights are “spiritually transformed firearm[s] of Jesus Christ.” Puts me to mind of what I discovered years ago when visiting Ambon, Indonesia, a place where thousands of Christians and Muslims were killed—and killing—in the name of religion. We discovered that there were ceremonies to bless the weapons before going out to kill. And let me tell you, the stories of the killings there at that time were distinctly unholy. And the killing was futile.
There is a good biblical argument against war. There is also a reasonable argument, also from the Bible, in favor of armed self-defense against evil. There is also a logically weak but emotionally strong argument, based on theocratic assumptions, that we can wage war as God’s agents of justice. At the best of times these are dangerous distinctions for a society to get wrong. But these are the worst of times.
Just a few days ago there was a much publicized standoff between police officers in Michigan and the Hutaree Christian militia group. Nine members are accused of plotting to kill a law enforcement officer and then attack the funeral and kill more officers. The activities of this so-called Christian vigilante group are chilling enough; but the reports revealed that groups like them are forming by the hundreds every year. They are a rich mix of social misfits, fanatic religionists, and racists. They breed on cheap talk of God and country. They feed off growing discontent with government and the opinions of sometimes rabid talk show hosts. I have commented before that it is only in degree, not in kind, that such talk differs from those who in countries such as Yugoslavia and Rwanda have incited to genocide. Maybe it is time to get the religion issue sorted out. Ceremonial deism or secret coded messages are both substituting for moral clarity.
This magazine has always and will always argue for the separation of church and state. It is a constitutional model and a requirement easily proven by the record of history. But we should never accept the separation of religion from society—or, far more ominous, the separation of faith from religion.
The Christian militia may be nativist and crude in their vision, but it is not so different from the view that many hold—that somehow the United States is a Christian government by structure, divine mandate, and agenda. Maybe there are millions who recite the pledge and take it literally. All of it. Maybe the texts on the weapons are the subtext to an assumption of divine mandate.
There are constitutional answers, of course. But I think Paul’s character analysis of the last days fits pretty well. The form of religion allied with all the character traits of the modern age signals danger. In requiring that religion be freed of state control and patronage, the framers of the U.S. Constitution built in a protection against the hijacking of the state by corrupt religionists. Religion that seeks political power is usually about more than witness. Religion that resorts to power has usually failed to realize the true Source of power. Religion that seeks to kill is not true religion.
We need more people pledging allegiance to “the better angels of our nature,” as Abraham Lincoln put it. Then they might not be so anxious to codify by force what only the Spirit can bring.
* Bible texts credited to RSV are from the Revised Standard Version of the Bible, copyright© 1946, 1952, 1971, by Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A. Used by permission.
Author: Lincoln E. Steed
Lincoln E. Steed is the editor of Liberty magazine, a 200,000 circulation religious liberty journal which is distributed to political leaders, judiciary, lawyers and other thought leaders in North America. He is additionally the host of the weekly 3ABN television show "The Liberty Insider," and the radio program "Lifequest Liberty."