John Leo

The truth is that the fate of the phrase ?under God? is a symbolic issue. The real issue is the continuing and relentless effort to banish every trace of religion from the public square. ?Under God? is in line with ?In God We Trust? on our currency and ?God save the United States and this honorable court? at the Supreme Court and a similar blessing in the president?s annual Thanksgiving message. To defenders of the ?under God? phrase, this is the key point: that the reflexive hostility to religion that now guides much of American liberalism will result in the step-by-step elimination of all these references, most of which, as Justice Sandra Day O?Connor and others have argued, are harmless expressions of ?ceremonial deism.?
The antireligious campaign presents itself, of course, as a high-minded concern about church-state separation. But that self-flattering view breaks down quickly under the most casual analysis. The American Civil Liberties Union hilariously argued that a moment of silence in Virginia schools equals ?establishment of religion.? Recently, under threat of expensive litigation, the ACLU forced the removal of a tiny cross on a tiny building on the seal of Los Angeles County. The cross was included in a welter of symbols and referred to the Span­ish missions that founded modern California. Even a semi­rational analysis might have concluded that this was a straight­forward, unthreatening historical reference. But it was enough to send the ACLU into a spasm of church-state concern.

The strategy is simple: Never take the case to the American people -- use unelected judges and the bullying threat of litigation to force unwanted change. And focus on even dubious marginal issues to create the impression that any religious reference in public is toxic. Jean Bethke Elshtain of the University of Chicago sees a massive form of liberal intolerance in this antireligious campaign, which she refers to as ?the squeezing of the last breath of life out of anything that presents itself as religious in any public way.?

The battle behind the ?under God? issue pits true pluralists against intolerant secularists who are willing to accept religion, but only if it is defanged and totally privatized. The late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago pointed out how odd it is to claim a respect for religion while simultaneously insisting that people keep it to themselves. Stephen Carter of Yale memorably referred to this belief as ?God as a hobby? -- many secular thinkers have no problem with religion as long as it is as marginal and private as woodworking or bird-watching. But if religious people act on their beliefs, you begin to hear that somehow believers are ?forcing? something on somebody else. Such phrases have popped up in the presidential campaign, along with the religion-is-private theme song: ?Religion is something between an individual and his God.? Actually, it isn?t. Most religions demand that believers exert themselves to shape a better society, not just sit and worship in some corner. The opponents of religion have made great headway in convincing Americans  that it should not enter the public arena. But the struggle will continue. It is far from over.

John Leo

John Leo is editor of and a former contributing editor at U.S. News and World Report.

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