The Right Coast

April 04, 2004
Taking religion seriously
By Tom Smith

Pretty good essay in TNR by Leon Wieselteir, via Mirror of Justice. The essay is a little long-winded for my tastes, however. I wonder if reading blogs shortens my already sub-optimally long attention span. (Someday there will be a drug that allows people to sit all day reading bond indentures and think it's fun and interesting, but I digress.)

I agree with Kierkegaard's point that a state religion tends to have the religion sucked out of it by the state. The state is not the friend of religion--I suppose we can concede that much to the Reformation and all that. Nevertheless, really, it is a bit hard to take seriously the point that the religious symbols in American public life, "under God" and so forth, have the effect of turning American religion into happy, harmless Anglicanism a la Britons. In a world of MTV and the Democratic Party, I'm not too worried about the state establishment of Judeo-Christianity will eviscerate it. More likely, "under God" will cause some children to wonder who God is, find their teacher cannot discuss it with them, and end up looking for the answer elsewhere, to their potential benefit. That doesn't make it constitutional, but I'd say there are miles of good, rocky ground between us and the slippery slope to complacent, 19th century Denmark. Thanks, but no thanks for the suggestion, Leon.

On the other hand, I could not agree more with Wieseltier's implication that there is something tedious, hypocritical and irreligious in politicians, such as Supreme Court justices so often are, bloviating on what religion is and isn't, when most of them (Scalia must be prominently excepted) wouldn't recognize genuine religion if their guardian angels hit them over the head with it. At least in many religions, there is something profoundly anti-political. It's not about, for once, posing for gain one way or another. The primates pause and for a moment aren't trying to rise in the hierarchy or keep from sliding down. Some primates have so internalized this struggle and are so good at it, that they can only react to this pause with puzzlement. What are these people up to? Is there no way I can take advantage of it?

So yes, if "under God" does not refer to God, who cares if it's in the Pledge? What the case ought to be about is whether the people for whom it does mean something, ought to be able to say it in public school.