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January 12th, 2009
Freethought San Marcos: Why ‘civil religion’ isn’t religious

Freethought San Marcos: A column

When I have written about church-state separation in the past, many readers have reacted with disdain, or at least have expressed the opinion that government-directed or elected official-led religious practice, such as prayers at government events, does no harm. What many readers may not know is that my views on this subject have a long history of support from the religious community, the most notable being the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty (BJC).

The Southern Baptist Convention began its work in opposition to the mingling of religion and government in 1936, when it created the Committee on Public Relations. In 2005, after being joined by an assortment of other Baptist groups over the years, they chose the name Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty. The organization now is made up of seventeen Baptist groups, including the Alliance of Baptists, American Baptist Churches USA, Baptist General Association of Virginia, Baptist General Conference, Baptist General Convention of Texas, Baptist State Convention of North Carolina, Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, National Baptist Convention of America, National Baptist Convention, USA, Inc., National Missionary Baptist Convention of America, North American Baptist Conference, Progressive National Baptist Convention, Religious Liberty Council, and Seventh Day Baptist General Conference.

The BJC states its mission: “…to defend and extend God-given religious liberty for all, furthering the Baptist heritage that champions the principle that religion must be freely exercised, neither advanced nor inhibited by government.” In 1995, Brent Walker, the current Executive Director of BJC, testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee concerning BJC’s opposition to the Religious Equality Amendment, which would have had the government promote religion; he said, “The best government can do is to get out of religion’s way; the worst it can do is to get behind and push.”

The BJC opposes what it calls “civil religion,” which is sometimes called “ceremonial deism.” Civil religion, according to the BJC, “describes those public rituals that express the intersection of the political and the divine. The term connotes a generalized form of national faith that mixes piety and patriotism to the point that one can hardly tell the difference. It is often government’s use of consensus religious sentiments and symbols for its own purposes. It sometimes describes churches’ use of patriotic symbols such as displaying the flag in the sanctuary or singing patriotic songs in worship. Examples of civil religion include reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, with its affirmation of ‘one nation under God,’ swearing to tell the truth ‘so help me God,’ taking an oath with a hand on the Bible, and inscribing currency with ‘In God We Trust.’ ” The BJC explains that “courts typically uphold the constitutionality of these practices by minimizing their religious significance. Through long use and rote repetition, the words have lost the religious import they might have once had.”

The BJC believes that “civil religion, sponsored by the government, unlike genuine religion taught in our homes and houses of worship, is unable to stimulate a heartfelt change that will have a real effect on our culture. The vitality of genuine religion in America and its positive effects are diminished—not enhanced—when people of faith seek greater civil religion in government instead of genuine religion in their own lives and houses of worship.”

As we approach the inauguration of the 44th President of the United States on January 20, the Presidential Inaugural Committee, the Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies and the Hon. John Roberts, Jr., Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, along with other government functionaries will promote the civil religion repudiated by the BJC in its “Issue Guide.” The Chief Justice will add the words “so help me God” to the official oath of office found in the Constitution as he administers that oath to President-elect Obama. The inaugural committees, with the blessing of the President-elect, will promote the giving of two prayers, used to open and close the official inaugural ceremony. The prayers will be given by two Christian ministers, ignoring people of other faiths and of no faith. What recourse do Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, atheists, agnostics, and others have to remedy this affront to their religious beliefs?

These insults to religion, as they are understood by the BJC, have been challenged by several individuals, children, and humanist and atheist organizations in a lawsuit filed December 29, 2008, in the United States District Court for the District of Columbia. Whether the lawsuit will be heard before the inaugural or will be successful remains to be seen. What the lawsuit and the position of the BJC teach us, however, is that whenever the government and government officials, in their official capacities, promote civil religion, religion is thereby diminished, and many, if not most, religious people, as well as the nonreligious, are left out.

The BJC notes, “There are times when promotion of civil religion not only cheapens religion but actually may violate the Establishment Clause. At least one justice has warned that civil religion may be unconstitutional when it intends to invoke an atmosphere of worship or to create a religious presence. In order for it to be constitutional, it must be used in a secular or historical manner.” In other words, civil religion has to be cleansed of real religious significance, used merely for political purpose, namely, to project inauthentic piety on the government officials who promote it.

The lawsuit notes that the injection of the phrase “so help me God” into the oath of office was done sporadically before 1933, when it was used at FDR’s first inaugural. Its first use was at the 1881 inaugural of Chester Arthur, “ninety-two years after George Washington’s initial ceremony.” So its use throughout our history is limited to about 18 out of 57 inaugurations, so far as we know.

The lawsuit makes an important distinction. It does not challenge the religious right of President-elect Obama to utter the words “so help me God” if he chooses. It seeks only to prohibit the Chief Justice from inserting the words into the official oath to be administered by him: the words “so help me God” are not found in the oath prescribed by the U.S. Constitution.

Former Senator Mark Hatfield warned that civil religion “distorts the relationship between the state and our faith. It tends to enshrine our law and order and national righteousness while failing to speak of repentance, salvation and God’s standard of justice.” Civil religion, then, is a distortion of religion, and by its very nature, leaves out people who profess no faith, as well as those of religious faiths that are different from the religious faiths of those who are doing the praying.

Along with the BJC and the plaintiffs in the inaugural lawsuit, I believe that neither the government nor its officials should endorse any religion by promoting it in and through their official activities.

© Freethought San Marcos, Lamar W. Hankins

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