Note: Earlier today I denounced as a waste of time the attempt by Republicans in the House to reaffirm ‘In God We Trust’ as the national motto . A reader thoughtfully asked whether there is some value in reminding Americans that it is in God that we must trust. My answer is yes and no: Yes, it’s good to remind people to put their trust in God; no, it’s not good to ask them to put their trust in the deistic god of our civil religion. Is that what the House Republicans are doing? Yes, I think so. As a form of explanation I thought I’d dust off an old rant about civil religion.

Let us remember that it was the villain Jean Jacques Rousseau, who coined the phrase  civil religion  in his treatise,  On the Social Contract  (1762). Rousseau made the observation that in ancient times all governments were a form of theocracy with each nation serving their own god. States, therefore, never had religious wars since the governments “made no distinction between its gods and its laws.” Rousseau finds the genius of the Roman Empire was its ability to absorb both the nations and their gods and transform them into one pagan religion. This changed, he claims, with the appearance of Christ:


It was in these circumstances that Jesus came to set up on earth a spiritual kingdom, which, by separating the theological from the political system, made the State no longer one, and brought about the internal divisions which have never ceased to trouble Christian peoples. As the new idea of a kingdom of the other world could never have occurred to pagans, they always looked on the Christians as really rebels, who, while feigning to submit, were only waiting for the chance to make themselves independent and their masters, and to usurp by guile the authority they pretended in their weakness to respect. This was the cause of the persecutions.

Rousseau claims that this division between religion and the state “made all good polity impossible in Christian States; and men have never succeeded in finding out whether they were bound to obey the master or the priest.” He believed that political leaders tried to restore this lost ideal but have been unsuccessful because of the influence of Christianity, which put devotion to God above that of the State. Since religious devotion is not only useful to the state but can become a hindrance to the state’s authority, a third way was needed—civil religion:
There is therefore a purely civil profession of faith of which the Sovereign should fix the articles, not exactly as religious dogmas, but as social sentiments without which a man cannot be a good citizen or a faithful subject. While it can compel no one to believe them, it can banish from the State whoever does not believe them—it can banish him, not for impiety, but as an anti-social being, incapable of truly loving the laws and justice, and of sacrificing, at need, his life to his duty. If any one, after publicly recognizing these dogmas, behaves as if he does not believe them, let him be punished by death: he has committed the worst of all crimes, that of lying before the law.

The dogmas of civil religion ought to be few, simple, and exactly worded, without explanation or commentary. The existence of a mighty, intelligent and beneficent Divinity, possessed of foresight and providence, the life to come, the happiness of the just, the punishment of the wicked, the sanctity of the social contract and the laws: these are its positive dogmas. Its negative dogmas I confine to one, intolerance, which is a part of the cults we have rejected.


America has done a fine job of incorporating Rousseau’s “dogmas of civil religion,” keeping them “few, simple, and exactly worded.” We have restricted such sentiments to the most unobtrusive areas, allowing “In God We Trust’ to be printed on our coins and the phrase “under God” to slip in our Pledge of Allegiance (which, curiously, isn’t a pledge of allegiance to God but to a flag). We allow recognition for a “Divinity, possessed of foresight and providence” but what we don’t allow is the recognition of the Christian God. All of this should give Christians pause.

I think most Christians would agree that there is a vast and unbridgeable chasm between a deistic civil religion and orthodox Christianity. But the civil religion that our fellow citizens embrace is not the type Rousseau had in mind. It is very much a view that is rooted in the concept that America is a Christian nation (or at least a Judeo-Christian nation). For them, the “In God We Trust” on our coins might as well say “In Jesus We Trust.” The State is not only subordinate to the one true Sovereign (and don’t let the capitalized noun fool you—we’re still talking about Jesus here) but is expected to conform to his standards. Although this view can lead people to use Christianity to promote Americanism, more often it simply leads to criticism of the nation’s flaws. The fact that the country continually falls short of God’s standards is a constant annoyance for those who believe that the founding documents were wholly derived—at least in principle—from the Holy Scriptures. (Think I’m exaggerating? Talk to some of these folks and see if you don’t get the impression that they think the Constitution was inspired more by the Gospel of John than by John Locke.)

Those of us who champion a role for religion in the public square, however, cannot fully embrace this Christianized concept of civil religion. If we claim, as our friends and neighbors believe, that “under God” refers only to the Christian conception of God then we are either being unduly intolerant or, more likely, simply kidding ourselves. Do we truly think that our fellow Hindu, Wiccan, or Buddhist patriots are claiming to be  under  the same deity as we are? We can’t claim, as the Apostle Paul did on Mars Hill, that the “unknown god” they are worshiping is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The Pledge is, after all, a secular document and the “under god” is referring to the  Divinity  of our country’s civil religion. Just as the pagan religion of the Roman Empire was able to incorporate other gods and give them familiar names, the civil religion provides an umbrella for all beliefs to submit under one nondescript, fill-in-the-blank term.

While we should be as tolerant of civil religion as we are of other beliefs, we can’t justify submitting to it ourselves. That is not to say that we can’t say the Pledge and think of the one true God. But the god of America’s civil religion is not the God who died on the Cross. I can only speak for myself but I think this is why those of us atFirst Things are not fans of civil religion. I would say that what we we favor is what John Meacham—by way of Ben Franklin—calls “public religion.” As  Michael Novak  notes:

By “public religion” [Meacham] means the public’s belief in the sacredness of conscience, the importance of religious liberty, the link between religion and republican virtues, and the necessity of these virtues for the faithful and steady workings of our Constitution. Furthermore, religion—or at least Judaism and Christianity—limits the state (“Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s”) and is a barrier against totalitarian government (as mere secularism has proved not to be). Such religions also inculcate an almost religious sense of obligation to defend liberty at home and, at times, around the world.

What we advocate for is religiously informed public philosophy, a form of public religion, not a baptized Rousseauean alternative.

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