“In God We Trust” on our coins and bills. “One nation under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance. The Ten Commandments posted on schoolroom walls, in courthouses, and in the U.S. Supreme Court building. Prayers by student leaders at high school graduations and football games.  The “Mount Soledad Cross” erected on public land above San Diego.

These symbolic affirmations of faith—and others like them—involve big public controversies. The American Civil Liberties Union, in tandem with other advocacy groups, has opposed such symbols as a violation of the First Amendment. On the other side, the American Center for Law and Justice and the Alliance Defending Freedom, among others, have defended them assertively.

Ordinary Americans wonder what to make of it all. Religious believers obviously intend to “trust in God” themselves, and believe in prayer and the Ten Commandments. But even many “conservative” Christians are uncomfortable with the publicity surrounding cases that are fought in the media as much as in the courtroom. They get weary of disputes that spill over into water-cooler talk at work and dinner table talk at home.

So are these things worth contending for? More basically, are they even worth agreeing with in the first place?

These are good questions. To answer them requires getting clear about four facts that are often overlooked.

First, the reason these public symbols exist is not because right-wing activists have suddenly launched an effort to force faith down people’s throats. There is nothing new about such symbols. The Continental Congress, which declared American independence 239 years ago, frequently and officially called Americans to days of fasting and prayer to God, asking “God, through the merits of Jesus Christ, mercifully to forgive” (1777). The First Congress which established the Bill of Rights celebrated its enactment with a proclamation urging Americans to thank God for it (1791). Like other presidents before and after, James Madison issued a proclamation advising Americans to offer their “adorations to Almighty God” while “seeking His merciful forgiveness” (1812). He did this in his official capacity as President, not merely as a private individual. James Madison was not a right-wing Christian activist. (For details I recommend James Hutson’s study, Religion and the Founding of the American Republic, Washington, D.C.: Library of Congress, 1998.)

In other words, if our public faith symbols are controversial it is not because they are new but because a newly-motivated set of activists began to take offense at them, starting about 40 years ago.

Second, these public affirmations of faith are not coercive. They exert public influence without public coercion.  There is no penalty for disliking them, or for rejecting their symbolic meaning.  No governmental benefit is conferred or withheld based on your attitude toward them.  That’s why James Madison was comfortable with this sort of influence, even at the federal level.

Citizens should care about such symbolic influence because they should care about the common good, that is to say, the “general Welfare” of the Constitution’s Preamble. An even deeper reason is because God calls us to “love our neighbor.” A public sphere devoid of reverence for God is a dangerous place. When masses of people no longer feel they are accountable to a higher moral power, they more easily become capricious and tyrannical with each other, and this inevitably affects law and government.

Some years ago, conservative commentator Joel Belz dismissed people’s concern for symbols like “Under God” and “In God We Trust,” calling them mere “knick-knacks of civil religion” (World Magazine, November 1, 2003). But Belz’s dismissal was short-sighted. Most religions teach that God created man to live by truth and to organize his life by the symbols of truth. And even if you don’t believe in God, it is obvious that human beings configure their lives around the ideas and symbols they believe to be ultimate. Symbols have a potency that law lacks, precisely because their influence is noncoercive. Moreover, the absence of religious symbols does not produce a public sphere devoid of spiritual commitments, but rather a public sphere with alternative symbols that are the functional equivalent of the ones displaced. A glance at contemporary culture confirms this. The realm of the spirit abhors a vacuum just as much as nature does.

Third, it’s important to get clear about religious liberty in relation to these symbols. Some conservatives argue that the elimination of these symbols is a threat to religious liberty. This is not true, or only indirectly so. At present, the legal attack on public symbols of faith is not an attack on the freedom of individuals to express their faith. (There are growing threats to free expression by religiously believing individuals, but that’s a distinct issue from public symbols; I am not addressing that here.) In fact, most of the litigation I’ve alluded to here hangs on the argument that faith is something that individuals, and only individuals, may freely express. Thus the Mount Soledad Cross still stands because the land on which it was erected was transferred from public to private ownership. By this logic, the religious freedom of private individuals is affirmed while the freedom of organized communities to affirm a common faith is denied. If you care about symbols that serve the common good, this is a Pyrrhic victory.

This kind of “solution” implicitly teaches Americans that faith is only meaningful as a private individual thing and has no universal significance. This makes religious relativism the de facto symbolic position of American government. One symbol system—the naked public square, as Richard J. Neuhaus described it—has replaced another. And this kind of “solution” applied retrospectively would turn all our early American Presidents and Congresses into lawbreakers.

Fourth, controversy about public religious symbols is an inescapable element of human political life. This is true no matter what system you live under. Part of the genius of the American Constitution is a complex jurisdictional system that allows a variety of solutions to such controversies. National coinage with a national noncoercive faith motto is obviously a national matter. But most of the detailed disputes about publicly-affirmed faith occur at the state and local levels. The beauty of American constitutionalism is not that it mechanically applies one formula to every governmentally-related entity, but rather that it recognizes different democratically-constituted decision-making authorities. If we followed the Constitution, for example, local school boards elected by local parents, overseeing local community schools, would decide whether to post the Ten Commandments on the bulletin board, and whether to allow prayer at graduations—provided that school board policies didn’t require students or teachers to affirm agreement with these symbols. Local counties accountable to local voters would decide whether to erect crosses on hillsides in public parks. The outcomes would vary. Neither local county councils, nor local school boards, nor the fifty states themselves, are mere appendages of the federal government. According to the Tenth Amendment, they retain powers not specifically given to the central government, and their jurisdictions, if allowed to operate, could resolve some of our more difficult disputes over public faith symbols.

The American Constitution has a wisely complex system of jurisdiction because it aims to protect, as its Preamble says, both “the general Welfare” and “the Blessings of Liberty” enjoyed by individuals—not just one or the other.

This is not paradoxical, especially not when it comes to religious liberty. Thomas Jefferson said that “our liberties are the gift of God.” Moreover, he famously asked, “can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are the gift of God?” Jefferson knew that the religious liberties of individuals are jeopardized when people in general come to believe that they are not the gift of God. God’s gifts are sacrosanct. Liberty cannot easily be considered sacrosanct if there is no God. It should not be surprising that, as a historical matter, civil protection for the liberties of individuals arose and spread precisely in those lands where people learned that Caesar’s domain was not God’s.

Influence is not coercion; moreover, as I have suggested above, it is impossible for any governmental body to avoid exercising influence in one direction or another when it comes to issues of symbolic meaning.  Of course it takes vigilance to police the bright line dividing influence from coercion.  But so long as it is not coercive, public affirmation of faith in God is much more than a knick-knack. It is a form of influence that can help make all forms of individual liberty—including religious liberty—more secure.

Copyright © 2015 by Graham Walker


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