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Monday, April 30, 2007
(11:57 AM) | Stephen:
Ceremonial Deism

My contribution to the Blog Against Theocracy focused upon the experience that ancient Israel had with their desire to have a king instead of being ruled by judges such as Samuel. God, speaking through his representative Samuel, relented and chose a king for them, but not without warning them what a king would do to them, their families and their fortunes.

Saul was the first king of Israel. Samuel, however, kept his role as the mouthpiece of God, instructing Saul in how he was to rule and act. One example of this is found in 1 Samuel 15, where Samuel tells "go and completely destroy the entire Amalekite nation—men, women, children, babies, cattle, sheep, goats, camels, and donkeys.”

So Saul attacks the Amalekite nation and kills all the men, women, children and babies. The best of the cattle, sheep, goats, camels and donkeys, however, he keeps. Saul is chastised by Samuel and punished, and eventually loses his kingdom to David.

What Saul did with the animals made a lot of sense politically. He increased his own wealth and that of Israel. He certainly won points with his soldiers; plundering loot was, and still is, an important part of winning a battle. Anyway, as Saul told Samuel, he was going to sacrifice [some of] the animals to God. Saul was perfectly willing to comply with the form of his religion. But there were pressures he faced that some prophet/judge like Samuel either didn't know or care about.

That's exactly what Samuel warned the ancient Israelites would happen. A kingship is a purely political position. Those places, such as ancient Egypt, where the pharaoh was considered a god managed to combine politics and religion by making the religious aspect of the pharaoh's position subservient to the religious position.

But this was unacceptable in Israel, and Saul at least had to show that he truly followed the forms of their religious belief and practice. However, Saul made his religion just as subservient to his political needs as the Egyptians.

This is what's happening in the United States today regarding the use of "God" in our Pledge of Allegiance, on our money, and in Indiana at least, on license plates. In fact, Ted Olson, arguing in his capacity as Solicitor General of the United States, argued before the Supreme Court that the presence of the phrase "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance is "ceremonial deism."

"Ceremonial deism," of course, is another way of saying "meaningless." It doesn't mean anything to have "under God" in the Pledge or "In God We Trust" on our money. Certainly it isn't meant to imply that everyone in this country has an obligation toward God. Those are just some words, inserted into our pledge and stamped on our money beginning in the 1950s, a bit of propaganda to help remind Americans of one of the ways that this country was different than the Soviet Union. There was no official policy of atheism in this country, no way. We can believe in God if we want, and we can even state that on our money!

We've kept these meaningless words on our money and in our Pledge because they comfort certain members of our society. It helps some groups make their case that the USA is, or should be, a Christian nation.

Yet while it is the official position of the government of the United States of America that these words are utterly meaningless, the truth is far different. However, the danger these words pose is not that the government is lending its authority and approval to expressions of religious faith. That these words are meaningless in the context of real religious belief and experience is at least true. No one's faith is going to be strengthened or informed by "under God" or "In God We Trust."

No, the danger comes from the other direction. These phrases are used to give the actions of the United States government the approval of God himself. Have we been torturing people, holding them without charges, killing civilians, prosecuting innocent people? Don't worry, we are a "nation under God." Does our money, both public and private, go to prop up repressive and corrupt regimes like those in Saudi Arabia or China? Don't worry, for "In God We Trust." Do we put non-violent drug offenders in prison next to murderers and rapists, do we refuse to provide hungry children with food, do we ignore the plight of the homeless? So what? We're a "nation under God." Do we base our entire way of life on the backs of peasants the world over, people who are brutally oppressed for the sake of our clothes and produce in our groceries? Who cares? For "In God We Trust."

Anyone who really wants to commit blasphemy might consider uploading a video to YouTube that consists of them holding up a dollar bill and stating plainly, "I have no problem with anything about this."

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