It was the first time that William Rehnquist ever put me in mind of Søren Kierkegaard. As I watched the Supreme Court discuss God with Michael A. Newdow, the atheist from California who was defending his victory in a lower court that had concurred with his view that the words "under God" should be stricken from the Pledge of Allegiance because it is a religious expression, and was therefore responding to the Bush administration's petition to protect the theism in the Pledge, I remembered a shrewd and highly un-American observation that was included among the aphorisms in Either/Or: "The melancholy have the best sense of the comic, the opulent often the best sense of the rustic, the dissolute often the best sense of the moral, and the doubter often the best sense of the religious."
The discussion that morning fully vindicated the majesty of the chamber, as legal themes gave way to metaphysical themes and philosophy bewitched the assembly. But something strange happened. Almost as soon as philosophy was invited, it was disinvited. It seemed to make everybody anxious, except the respondent. I had come to witness a disputation between religion's enemies and religion's friends. What I saw instead, with the exception of a single comment by Justice Souter, was a disputation between religion's enemies, liberal and conservative. And this confirmed me in my conviction that the surest way to steal the meaning, and therefore the power, from religion is to deliver it to politics, to enslave it to public life.
Some of the individuals to whom I am attributing a hostility to religion would resent the allegation deeply. They regard themselves as religion's finest friends. But what kind of friendship for religion is it that insists that the words "under God" have no religious connotation? A political friendship, is the answer. And that is precisely the kind of friendship that the Bush administration exhibited in its awful defense of the theistic diction of the Pledge.
The solicitor general stood before the Court to argue against the plain meaning of ordinary words. In the Pledge of Allegiance, the government insisted, the word "God" does not refer to God. It refers to a reference to God. The government's argument, as it was stated in the brief filed by Theodore B. Olson, was made in two parts. The first part was about history, the second part was about society. "The Pledge's reference to 'a Nation under God,'" the solicitor general maintained, "is a statement about the Nation's historical origins, its enduring political philosophy centered on the sovereignty of the individual." The allegedly religious words in the Pledge are actually just "descriptive" -- the term kept recurring in the discussion -- of the mentality of the people who established the United States. As Olson told the Court, they are one of several "civic and ceremonial acknowledgments of the indisputable historical fact that caused the framers of our Constitution and the signers of the Declaration of Independence to say that they had the right to revolt and start a new country."
This is, for a start, an imprecise understanding of American origins. The American revolutionaries appealed not only to God, but also to reason; and their appeal to reason was animated by more than their feeling that reason was divine. It is historical and intellectual nonsense to believe that the concept of the sovereignty of the individual rests exclusively, or even mainly, upon religious foundations. Modernity was not merely the most recent era in the history of religion. The American order was a new idea, not a new version of an old idea. Moreover, a ceremony is not a museum. There are many notions that filled the heads of our eighteenth-century heroes that we do not reproduce in our civic life. Our reverence toward the Founders, which is eternally justified by what they wrought, is not a curatorial attitude. This is the case also with regard to their religious convictions. They were, many of them, Deists -- which is to say, the United States was created in the very short period in history when it was theologically respectable to believe in a God that never intervenes in the world that He (the pronoun is ridiculous) created. In the matter of our religious origins, then, we were freakishly fortunate. No theology more convenient for a secular democracy ever existed. But there are no Deists in America anymore. This is why it was exceedingly odd to hear the controversial words in the Pledge described at the Court with Eugene Rostow's phrase "ceremonial deism." Ceremonial theism, perhaps; but that is a more highly charged activity. If there were still Deists in America, we would enjoy more cultural peace. Why do the God-inebriated opponents of the separation of church and state in America, the righteous citizens who see God's hand in everything that Fox News reports, insult the Founders by revising and even rejecting their God?
The second part of Olson's argument was a rather candid appeal to the expediency of religion. The Pledge is "a patriotic exercise and a solemnizing ceremony," which serves "the secular values of promoting national unity, patriotism, and an appreciation of the values that defined the Nation." The brief further notes that the introduction of God into the Pledge in 1954 had "a political purpose," which was to "highlight the foundational difference between the United States and Communist nations." (The brief does not cite some of the embarrassingly sectarian expostulations in that congressional debate.) It is certainly correct that the materialism of communist ideology offended many Americans; but the American dispensation differed from the Soviet dispensation in many significant ways, and it is foolish to impute all the evils of the Soviet Union to its godlessness. The record of religious states in the matter of mass persecution and mass murder does not support the political complacency of many American believers.
In contemporary America, however, it seems forever necessary to repeat the elementary admonition that there is a distinction between religion and morality. At the Christian demonstration outside the Supreme Court that morning, one of the speakers remarked, as she reminded her listeners that "the Soviet Union was definitely not a nation under God," that "I guess it's not a surprise that if you don't acknowledge God you don't care about lying." Are there no religious liars? Not if you hold that religion and morality are the same; or if you deem a statement to be true because it includes a mention of God. This same silly woman went on to suggest that in the inner city "children are killing children because they have not heard 'Thou Shalt Not Kill.'" Surely the situation is more complicated and more disturbing. Surely some of those young people with guns have heard the Sixth Commandment, but it has had no effect on their ethics. Faith is not a promise of goodness, as the Bible frequently shows.
The distinction between religion and morality was championed by religious thinkers in all the monotheistic faiths, who worried that religion would be reduced to morality. Now we must worry that for many Americans morality is being reduced to religion. Newdow was right when he insisted that there is nothing paradoxical about a godless patriotism, when he ringingly concluded with the hope that "we can finally go back and have every American want to stand up, face the flag, place their hand over their heart, and pledge to one nation, indivisible, not divided by religion, with liberty and justice for all." Patriotism is certainly a mark of a polity's moral soundness, and the Pledge is one of many splendid instruments for making patriots; but patriotism, as even the solicitor general notes, is a secular value. To cherish religion for its political utility is to cherish it narrowly, selfishly, consequentially, because it allows you to accomplish one of your objectives, because it works. American conservatives love to chant Richard Weaver's old slogan that ideas have consequences; but if you are chiefly interested in the consequences, then you are not chiefly interested in the ideas. If you care primarily about patriotism or "national unity" or "civilization," then you will concern yourself with the practical impact of the phrase "under God" and not with its theoretical implication. You will neglect religion even as you denounce others for doing the same.
But the conservatives were not the only ones at the Supreme Court who denied religion by the manner in which they defended it. Justice Breyer wondered, in a challenge to Newdow, whether the words "under God" referred only to a "supreme being." Citing United States v. Seeger from 1965, though he might have illustrated his speculation more vividly with the historical precedent of the Cult of the Supreme Being in revolutionary Paris, Breyer proposed that such a faith "in any ordinary person's life fills the same place as belief in God fills in the life of an orthodox religionist," and so "it's reaching out to be inclusive" -- so inclusive, in fact, that it may satisfy a non-believer such as Newdow. Breyer suggested that the God in "under God" is "this kind of very comprehensive supreme being, Seeger-type thing." And he posed an extraordinary question to Newdow: "So do you think that God is so generic in this context that it could be that inclusive, and if it is, then does your objection disappear?"
Needless to say, Newdow's objection did not disappear, because it is one of the admirable features of atheism to take God seriously. Newdow's reply was unforgettable: "I don't think that I can include 'under God' to mean 'no God,' which is exactly what I think. I deny the existence of God." The sound of those words in that room gave me what I can only call a constitutional thrill. This is freedom. And he continued: "For someone to tell me that 'under God' should mean some broad thing that even encompasses my religious beliefs sounds a little, you know, it seems like the government is imposing what it wants me to think in terms of religion, which it may not do. Government needs to stay out of this business altogether." So the common ground that Breyer depicted was not quite as common as he thought it was. In fact, Breyer was advocating the Lockean variety of toleration, according to which it would be based on a convergence of conviction, a consensus about the truth, among the overwhelming majority of the members of a society. The problem with such an arrangement is that the convergence is never complete and the consensus is never perfect. Locke himself instructed that "those are not at all to be tolerated who deny the Being of a God." The universal absolute is never quite universal. And there is another problem. It is that nobody worships a "very comprehensive supreme being, Seeger-type thing." Such a level of generality, a "generic" God, is religiously senseless. Breyer's solution was another attempt to salvage religious expression by emptying it of religious content. But why should a neutralized God be preferred to a neutral government? The preference is attractive only if religion is regarded primarily from the standpoint of politics.
There are two words in the phrase "under God." Each of them is indeed descriptive -- but it is not our history that they describe. They describe our cosmos. Or rather, they purport to describe our cosmos. They make a statement about the universe, they paint a picture of what exists. This statement and this picture is either true or false. Either there is a God and we are under Him -- the spatial metaphor, the image of a vertical reality, is one of the most ancient devices of religion -- or there is not a God and we are not under Him. Since 1954, in other words, the Pledge of Allegiance has conveyed metaphysical information, and therefore it has broached metaphysical questions. I do not see how its language can be read differently. During the deliberations at the Court, only Justice Souter conceded that a cosmological claim, a worldview, is being advanced by the allusion to God in the Pledge. "I will assume that if you read the Pledge carefully, the reference to 'under God' means something more than a mere description of how somebody else once thought," he told Newdow. "The republic is then described as being under God, and I think a fair reading of that would be: I think that's the way the republic ought to be conceived, as under God. So I think there's some affirmation there. I will grant you that."
To recognize the plain meaning of the words "under God," and the nature of the investigation that they enjoin, is to discover the philosophical core of religion. This is not at all obvious to the modern interpretation of religion, and not to the American interpretation of it. After Kant explained that we can have no direct knowledge of the thing itself, and certainly not of God, religious statements have tended to be not propositions of fact, but propositions of value -- expressions of inner states that are validated by the intensity of the feeling with which they are articulated. Certainty weirdly became an accomplishment of subjectivity. Kant thought that he secured religion by placing it beyond the bounds of knowledge. But this was a false security, because the vocabulary of theism continues to point to more than emotion or experience or tribe or culture. Prayer in particular remains, at least at the level of its language, an address in the second-person singular to an entity that is not oneself. Theology, if it wishes to be regarded as more than a cerebral fantasy, cannot be content to have its basis in the imagination; it must appeal to the authority of philosophy if it is to continue to speak about what is true.
Many modern believers, and modern commentators on religion, resent this. A recent historian of atheism, a Jesuit scholar, laments that in modern theology "religion was treated as if it were theism," as if it had no resources of its own to guarantee anything generally binding and true. But if religion is not theism, if its ground is not an intellectually supportable belief in the existence of God, then all the spiritual exaltation and all the political agitation in the world will avail it nothing against the skeptics and the doubters, and it really is just a beloved illusion. Others denounce the abstraction of the God of the philosophers, and the impersonality. Before such a deity, Heidegger demagogically complained, "man can neither fall to his knees in awe nor can he play music and dance." But this is not philosophy's problem, or even religion's problem, if by religion you mean something other than an excuse to fall to your knees or to dance with your feet. If the impersonal God does not exist, I do not see how the personal God can exist.
There is no greater insult to religion than to expel strictness of thought from it. Yet such an expulsion is one of the traits of contemporary American religion, as the discussion at the Supreme Court demonstrated. Religion in America is more and more relaxed and "customized," a jolly affair of hallowed self-affirmation, a religion of a holy whatever. Speaking about God is prized over thinking about God. Say "under God" even if you don't mean under God. And if you mean under God, don't be tricked into giving an account of what you mean by it. Before too long you have arrived at a sacralized cynicism: In his intervention at the Court, Justice Stevens recalled a devastating point from the fascinating brief submitted in support of Newdow by 32 Christian and Jewish clergy, which asserted that "if the briefs of the school district and the United States are to be taken seriously," that is, if the words in the Pledge do not allude to God, "then every day they ask schoolchildren to violate [the] commandment" that "Thou shalt not take the Name of the Lord in vain." Remember, those are not the Ten Suggestions. It is a very strange creed indeed that asks its votaries not to reflect too much about itself.
For this reason, American unbelief can perform a great quickening service to American belief. It can shake American religion loose from its cheerful indifference to the inquiry about truth. It can remind it that religion is not only a way of life but also a worldview. It can provoke it into remembering its reasons. For the argument that a reference to God is not a reference to God is a sign that American religion is forgetting its reasons. The need of so many American believers to have government endorse their belief is thoroughly abject. How strong, and how wise, is a faith that needs to see God's name wherever it looks? (His name on nickels and dimes is rather damaging to His sublimity.)
I do not mean to exaggerate the virtues of Michael Newdow: There was something too shiny about him, too dogmatic about his opposition to other people's dogmas. Atheists can be as mindless as theists. From his comments at the Supreme Court, there was no way to tell how thoughtful Newdow's arguments against theism are, or even what they are. And when Newdow insisted that there is some injury to him when his daughter "is asked every morning to say that her father is wrong" by praying in class, because "the government says there is a God and her dad says there isn't," he failed to grasp one of the ends of education, which is to make children unlike their parents. And yet Newdow's appearance at the Supreme Court was terrifically stirring. Elk Grove Unified School District v. Michael A. Newdow exposed a spiritual poverty, and honored an American tradition, and cautioned an entire country about the consequences of a smug and sloppy entanglement of religion with politics, for politics and for religion. It is never long before one nation under God gives way to one God under a nation.
Leon Wieseltier is the literary editor of TNR.?
By Leon Wieseltier