Under God -- or somewhere else?

Posted: Mar 23, 2004 12:00 AM

So just when did the Lord God Almighty become a constitutional issue?

Oh, I'd venture, somewhere back during the early '60s. The U.S. Supreme Court's no-prayer-in-school decisions told how the land lay. Slowly, slowly, the court began disconnecting the spiritual electricity that earlier generations had sought to plug into what we call "the public square." We began to talk of religion as private and personal. Things just went on from there: manger scenes, commencement prayers, Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore's Ten Commandments monument.

Thus, we come to this constitutional moment: the high court meditating on a complaint that the words "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance somehow undermine American freedoms.

A ruling will in due course follow this week's formal arguments before the court, and no matter the outcome, the competing sides will take each other to task, because that is where we are as a people -- divided over basics and consequently fit to be tied.

Legal commentators may think the court is poised to resolve some of these controversies. Ho, ho, ho. We the people will somehow have to resolve them for ourselves. We really don't know what we believe anymore -- I mean, as a nation.

The staid religiosity of our forbears compels and persuades less powerfully than of old. Nor, in my view, could we restore it simply by overturning the jurisprudence of the past four decades, starting with the decision to outlaw formal prayer in public schools.

We would first have to work out our disparate views on spiritual independence -- on our fast-evolving commitment to avoid community standards of belief and action. Where in the past we might have deferred (generally) to authority, now we say, chirpily, "Over to you ... " Whatever you think. Follow your bliss. Your truths, my truths. If it feels good, do it.

Religion in 21st century America is often likened to a marketplace. Down the crowded aisles we plunge with our shopping carts. A little of this, some of that. Ohhhh, here's something new! Smell it, Jessica; see if we want some.

Often as not these days, "mainstream" Christian denominations join in the picking and the choosing. Figuring out what the nation believes isn't our only modern challenge; another is figuring out what Episcopalians and Presbyterians and Methodists believe -- as collectivities. Nor does that mean what's their take on school choice or John Kerry. It means how do they stand on abortion, same-sex marriage, the authority of Scripture? The answers, ah, vary.

Here's one way this thing works. A few months back, then-presidential candidate Wesley Clark, a Catholic, undertook to justify his support of abortion. On that issue, Gen. Clark explained, "I understand what the Catholic doctrine is. But I have freedom of conscience ... (A)s much as I respect the opinion of the Catholic Church, in this case I don't support it." The doctrine of the Church -- so to speak, the Church's grasp of Eternal Truth -- becomes in Wes Clark's telling just another opinion, such as you and I and all of us have.

Everything, it sometimes seems, is a mere matter of opinion: Honda Civics vs. SUVs, Target vs. KMart, the value of a formal national commitment to God vs. fear of offending -- with two simple words, "under God" -- the ears of a shrill California atheist.

How the high court will negotiate this matter -- are we "one nation under God" or not? -- God alone can say.

My own "opinion"? I'm not sure we're really one nation. Anyway, look: Do we need (especially during a war on terrorism) to stoke our civil discords hotter and higher? Qui bono? What counts more here, huh -- the sour complaints of the atheist plaintiff from California or the historic conviction (which could be correct!) that America owes to God her basic freedoms? I say the latter counts more.

But, goodness' sake, as we all know, that's just an opinion, and would I dare diss the competing opinion of a fellow citizen? Zeus forbid!