Our Humanity, Naturally

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The Dangerous Fallacy of Ceremonial Deism

Governmental religious expressions are not harmless.

In disputes over church-state separation, "ceremonial deism" has become a legal doctrine heavily relied upon by those who wish to defend governmental religiosity. Though the concept has been around for decades, ceremonial deism has been seen with increasing frequency since 2004, when it was used in a concurring opinion by Justice Sandra Day O'Connor to uphold the "under God"  wording of the Pledge of Allegiance.

Ceremonial deism refers to certain governmental religious expressions, such as the Pledge wording and the national motto of In God We Trust, that defenders claim do not violate the Establishment Clause "wall of separation" between church and state. Justice William Brennan, who in 1984 was the first high court justice to refer to “ceremonial deism” in a written opinion, explained that the term covers religious references that "have lost through rote repetition any significant religious content." In other words, although the expression may appear religious, it is harmless because it is understood as having no religious meaning.

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The idea of an umbrella term for harmless governmental religious references might have some appeal, but use of the term "ceremonial deism" for that purpose is grossly inaccurate and even dangerous. In the real world, genuinely discriminatory governmental actions often escape scrutiny, partly because they are shielded by the euphemism of "ceremonial deism."

The presumption underlying many religious actions that are defended by the ceremonial deism argument – that the actions are harmless – is demonstrably incorrect. Exhibit one in this regard is a Cranston, Rhode Island, high school student named Jessica Ahlquist, who became the target of threats and bullying when she objected to a prayer banner in her high school last year. Even though her objections had nothing to do with the Pledge of Allegiance, students in her school soon used the "under God" wording of the Pledge as a weapon against her.

Specifically, during classroom recitation of the Pledge, students turned to face Ahlquist at the appropriate time, then shouted "under God!" at her. Thus, in the minds of these students, “rote repetition” of the Pledge – no doubt a daily exercise for many years – had not caused the words “under God” to lose their "significant religious content." On the contrary, regular repitition had instilled a fierce sense that religiosity is synonymous with patriotism, an understanding that true patriots must believe in God.

Even outside Jessica’s classroom, videos have surfaced showing the good people of Cranston, Rhode Island, emphasizing the "under God" wording during recitation of the Pledge at public meetings where the prayer banner was to be debated. Harmless ceremonial deism, indeed.

There may very well be some references to God in the public arena that are truly harmless. Religious references in art or in architecture, for example, can be portrayed in a way that does not suggest governmental endorsement of a theological viewpoint, especially when they are presented in a manner that allows other ideas and images to be portrayed as well. Such references, however, should be accurately labeled as "harmless governmental references to religion" and not "ceremonial deism," a term that is misleading on several levels.

For one, a reference to religion is not more likely to be harmless merely because it is “ceremonial.” In many circumstances (such as in schools, as we see in the Ahlquist scenario), ceremonies are where citizens learn how to define patriotism. If we are defining patriotism according to religious language and beliefs, how can we say that the “ceremony” is harmless, or that the language has "lost its significant religious content"? It obviously hasn't.

Moreover, the religious references defended by ceremonial deism are, generally speaking, not deistic at all, but theistic. Deism, a theological belief system that was popular in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, especially among intellectuals, was a radical departure from the revelation-based Christianity that had dominated Europe up to that time. In its day, long before Darwin's discoveries and other advances of modern science, deism was as close to atheism and agosticism as respectable citizens could safely get.

Though specific beliefs among deists varied, deism generally held that a “watchmaker God” created the universe but does not continue to intervene in worldly affairs. Like a watchmaker, this God set the world in motion but subsequently let it run on its own. Highly regarding reason, science, and empiricism, deism rejected notions of divine revelation, prayerful intervention, miracles, the divinity of Jesus, and virtually all supernaturalism and mysticism. It's little wonder that the era was called the Enlightenment, or the Age of Reason.

Those who most fervently defend a national motto of In God We Trust and the addition of the words “under God” in the Pledge (added in 1954, during the McCarthy era) are not in any way deists – they are usually Christians, and frequently conservative, evangelical Christians, who are eager to defend a theological reference that is consistent with their religious views. Deists, rejecting the idea of an intervening God with whom one can have a personal relationship, would find the notion of "trusting" in God to be rather puzzling.

This is why use of the term “ceremonial deism” is both inaccurate and dangerous. Believing the term to be synonymous with harmless governmental religious gestures, many might rationalize acceptance of terms like the In God We Trust motto and “under God” in the Pledge, because the pleasant euphemism of “ceremonial deism” makes it easy to do so. Even many who feel somewhat uncomfortable with such governmental religiosity nevertheless realize that any battle against the religious language will be emotionally charged, likely to raise questions of patriotism, and otherwise unpleasant. Thus, rather than stand up for what's right, it’s much easier to shrug off the religious gestures by placing them into the neat “ceremonial deism” category.

Doing so, however, only validates those who most vehemently promote governmental religiosity. As many citizens hold their noses and accept the ceremonial deism argument, choosing not to challenge governmental religiosity, triumphant religious conservatives gain more ammunition in their campaign to declare America a Christian nation. Many enlightened Americans may understand, as Justice Brennan suggested, that the religious wording should have no religious significance, but the unfortunate truth is that a many others interpret governmental religiosity as proof that real patriots must be believers.

Surely, the entire country loses when a certain religious demographic succeeds in utilizing government to promote its views. Though it may seem that the individuals most harmed by these semantic concessions are those atheists and others who vocally oppose the governmental actions protected by ceremonial deism, in reality all those concerned about church-state separation lose. No child - theist or atheist - should go to public school each day to have patriotism defined according to a religious doctrine, and neither should any citizen be told that good Americans presumably trust in God. Such statements are not harmless, nor are they “merely” ceremonial, or even deistic. As such, neutrality on religion leaves no room for the fallacy of ceremonial deism.

 

Nonbeliever Nation: The Rise of Secular Americans, the new book from David Niose, can be pre-ordered here.

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Dave Niose is an attorney, activist, and writer. He is president of the Washington-based American Humanist Association.

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