The Sham of ‘Ceremonial Deism’


Dave Niose, the president of the American Humanist Association, has an article in Psychology Today about the absurd notion of “ceremonial deism,” the Supreme Court’s often invoked phrase to justify government endorsement of religious beliefs in various circumstances. He begins by explaining the origin of the phrase:

Ceremonial deism refers to certain governmental religious expressions, such as the Pledge wording and the national motto of In God We Trust, that defenders claim do not violate the Establishment Clause “wall of separation” between church and state. Justice William Brennan, who in 1984 was the first high court justice to refer to “ceremonial deism” in a written opinion, explained that the term covers religious references that “have lost through rote repetition any significant religious content.” In other words, although the expression may appear religious, it is harmless because it is understood as having no religious meaning.

And then explains why it’s a nonsensical idea:

There may very well be some references to God in the public arena that are truly harmless. Religious references in art or in architecture, for example, can be portrayed in a way that does not suggest governmental endorsement of a theological viewpoint, especially when they are presented in a manner that allows other ideas and images to be portrayed as well. Such references, however, should be accurately labeled as “harmless governmental references to religion” and not “ceremonial deism,” a term that is misleading on several levels.

For one, a reference to religion is not more likely to be harmless merely because it is “ceremonial.” In many circumstances (such as in schools, as we see in the Ahlquist scenario), ceremonies are where citizens learn how to define patriotism. If we are defining patriotism according to religious language and beliefs, how can we say that the “ceremony” is harmless, or that the language has “lost its significant religious content”? It obviously hasn’t.

Moreover, the religious references defended by ceremonial deism are, generally speaking, not deistic at all, but theistic. Deism, a theological belief system that was popular in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, especially among intellectuals, was a radical departure from the revelation-based Christianity that had dominated Europe up to that time. In its day, long before Darwin’s discoveries and other advances of modern science, deism was as close to atheism and agosticism as respectable citizens could safely get.

Though specific beliefs among deists varied, deism generally held that a “watchmaker God” created the universe but does not continue to intervene in worldly affairs. Like a watchmaker, this God set the world in motion but subsequently let it run on its own. Highly regarding reason, science, and empiricism, deism rejected notions of divine revelation, prayerful intervention, miracles, the divinity of Jesus, and virtually all supernaturalism and mysticism. It’s little wonder that the era was called the Enlightenment, or the Age of Reason.

Those who most fervently defend a national motto of In God We Trust and the addition of the words “under God” in the Pledge (added in 1954, during the McCarthy era) are not in any way deists – they are usually Christians, and frequently conservative, evangelical Christians, who are eager to defend a theological reference that is consistent with their religious views. Deists, rejecting the idea of an intervening God with whom one can have a personal relationship, would find the notion of “trusting” in God to be rather puzzling.

This is why use of the term “ceremonial deism” is both inaccurate and dangerous. Believing the term to be synonymous with harmless governmental religious gestures, many might rationalize acceptance of terms like the In God We Trust motto and “under God” in the Pledge, because the pleasant euphemism of “ceremonial deism” makes it easy to do so. Even many who feel somewhat uncomfortable with such governmental religiosity nevertheless realize that any battle against the religious language will be emotionally charged, likely to raise questions of patriotism, and otherwise unpleasant. Thus, rather than stand up for what’s right, it’s much easier to shrug off the religious gestures by placing them into the neat “ceremonial deism” category.

Well said.

Comments

  1. Artor says

    Brett- you have nailed it exactly. It shouldn’t be there at all. The purpose of the phrase is to obfuscate the issue.

  2. says

    “There may very well be some references to God in the public arena that are truly harmless.”

    Spoken like someone in a position of privilege.

    Let me know when legislation and other government documents start saying things like “In Zeus we Trust”. Attitudes would change fast.

  3. leftwingfox says

    I was just mentioning at Chris Hallquist’s blog about elements of ceremonial deism in Canada, where God and the Queen are invoked, which confuses the issue slightly. The UK Monarch is still the Head of State in Canada, but with no practical political power. I wonder if having ceremonial deism and ceremonial monarchy at the same time changes the dynamic.

  4. jayarrrr says

    “… have lost through rote repetition any significant religious content.”

    Brett beat me to it.

    All I can add is, if indeed they have lost their religious content, then why do the Evangelical put up such a shit-fit when attempts are made to remove these verbal equivalents to the vermiform appendix from our public speech?

  5. dogmeat says

    I see this every year with the pledge and discussion of the 1st Amendment & Lemon Test. It never fails to bring about a comment from multiple conservative students who state that the pledge is “no big deal,” and “if you don’t like it don’t say it.” I ask them to confirm that it isn’t an endorsement of religion; that it isn’t very important, etc., they have, for nine years now, consistently confirmed that it is:

    1) No big deal
    2) Not endorsement of religion

    Having confirmed this, I then suggest, since it’s “no big deal,” that we remove the phrase, at which point nine out of ten of them quite literally freak out.

    After an additional discussion that usually lasts a half an hour or more, in which I let them argue back and forth, etc., I then point out that it must be a “big deal” if the suggestion of removing the phrase brings about such a heated response and conflicted conversation.

    You know its a good conversation when the kids are still going back and forth after they leave for lunch.

  6. eric says

    The ‘ceremonial deism’ claim is merely a convenient fiction to justify not changing the status quo. Obviously nobody would be okay with ‘ceremonial atheism,’ ‘ceremonial satanism,’ or even ‘ceremonial buddhism.’ Give it one second of thought and it becomes clear that the only religion ceremonially acceptable is the majority one. Which implies that the majority sees some endorsement behind it, because they only want government ceremonies to include their faith.

    ***

    Jasper @3 – I think Niose is probably referring to things like the frescos adorning the Supreme Court room, which include figures like Moses along with Hammurabi, Confucius, Solon, and others.

    My guess is Niose agrees that fresco isn’t government endorsement of Mosaic religion because (1) the government hired an artist and gave him artistic leeway to design the work, and (2) the theme of the artwork is clearly historical lawgivers, not anything specifically religious.

  7. d cwilson says

    Let me know when legislation and other government documents start saying things like “In Zeus we Trust”. Attitudes would change fast.

    Make it “In Allah We Trust” and the attitudes would change even faster.

    The Christian fundies would rush to pass laws banning any religious references in government documents so fast, you’d think they’d been caught in an airport rest room.

  8. dogmeat says

    Make it “In Allah We Trust” and the attitudes would change even faster.

    Actually, I used to use this as an example, most of the folks who support government sponsorship of religion dismiss this notion as laughable because (deep down) they recognize that non-Christians are such a tiny minority that such an effort is unlikely to happen within their lifetimes. Ironically these are some of the folks who fear “encroaching Sharia law,” so the cognitive dissonance is still alive and well, but deep down they know that their religious endorsement is safe.

  9. whheydt says

    Re: Deen (@ #9)

    As my wife usually puts it, “non-sectarian” means “we don’t care what kind of Protestant you are.”

    –W. H. Heydt

  10. d cwilson says

    but deep down they know that their religious endorsement is safe.

    Fundies love their cognitive dissonance. They’ll insist that America has always been a Christian nation ™ and yet claim they are being persecuted for their faith all the time.

  11. says

    In other words, although the expression may appear religious, it is harmless because it is understood as having no religious meaning.

    Which is of course why religious people are totally cool with removing such references.

  12. eric says

    Dogmeat – they might dismiss ‘what if we changed the money,’ but use an example of a school teacher leading prayer and see what they say. Or a judge in a courtroom. While the majority of teachers (and judges) will be Christian, certainly not all of them will be. Ask your conservative students if they’d be comfortable with a ceremonial Islamic, polytheist, or atheist invocation to begin the class (court)…and how their answer to that question might be relevant to what should be printed on our money.

    Changing money is impractical because it requires a single, big, change. But there are many instances of ‘ceremonial deism’ that can be done on a local scale. Getting people to think about how they might view those local ceremonial invocations as if they were outsiders is the first step to getting them to understand how outsiders might view bigger, more federal ritualistic behavior.

  13. Scientismist says

    Why must God be in the pledge and on the money? That was cleared up ten years ago. It is to combat the mistaken belief that the US is a secular democracy in which government derives its just powers from the consent of the governed:

    The reaction of people of faith to this tendency of democracy to obscure the divine authority behind government should not be resignation to it, but the resolution to combat it as effectively as possible. We have done that in this country (and continental Europe has not) by preserving in our public life many visible reminders that—in the words of a Supreme Court opinion from the 1940s — “we are a religious people, whose institutions presuppose a Supreme Being.” These reminders include: “In God we trust” on our coins, “one nation, under God” in our Pledge of Allegiance, the opening of sessions of our legislatures with a prayer, the opening of sessions of my Court with “God save the United States and this Honorable Court,” annual Thanksgiving proclamations issued by our President at the direction of Congress, and constant invocations of divine support in the speeches of our political leaders, which often conclude, “God bless America.” All this, as I say, is most un–European, and helps explain why our people are more inclined to understand, as St. Paul did, that government carries the sword as “the minister of God,” to “execute wrath” upon the evildoer.
    — Antonin Scalia, “God’s Justice and Ours”, First Things, May 2002

    Any questions?

  14. Akira MacKenzie says

    dogmeat:

    Ironically these are some of the folks who fear “encroaching Sharia law,” so the cognitive dissonance is still alive and well, but deep down they know that their religious endorsement is safe.

    Ah, but even though the Moos-lims are a minority they will use those nefarious activist judges to allow Shaia law in name of “diversity” while we easily-duped liberals will overlook it in the name of “multiculturalism.” Unless we alow the conservatives to impose Christianity upon America, we will all be praying to Mecca or be beheaded.

    At least that’s how my racist, Bible-humping, Republican relatives explained it to me.

  15. davem says

    Changing money is impractical because it requires a single, big, change.

    Not really. Banknotes don’t last long (9 months?) and are constantly being reprinted. I suggest that the God be replaced by a selection of deities, according to their popularity in the general public. So you’d get 10% ‘in Reason we Trust’, 3 or 4 % ‘Allah’, or ‘Mohammed’, etc. Very democratic. Could get interesting…

  16. cottonnero says

    I don’t like ‘In God We Trust’ because it’s a lie. No we don’t. It’s about as accurate as having ‘We like Pepsi best’ on our money.

  17. Hamilton Jacobi says

    If “we” trusted in God, then “we” would let God do his own homophobic bullying instead of trying to get Congress and the state legislatures to do it for him.

  18. Trickster Goddess says

    If rote repetition renders the phrase “under God” meaningless, then doesn’t that same reasoning also apply to the other words in the pledge?

  19. Gregory in Seattle says

    How many Christian martyrs became martyrs for refusing the “ceremonial deism” of offering a pinch of incence to the state gods of Rome?

    But, as expected, today’s Talibangelicals are totally ignorant of history. Especially their own.

  20. shallit says

    I’m a lot more worried about encroaching Scalia law than I am about encroaching Sharia law.

  21. says

    “So you’d get 10% ‘in Reason we Trust’, 3 or 4 % ‘Allah’, or ‘Mohammed’, etc. Very democratic. Could get interesting…”

    I can see it now. I’ve just finished a great meal; shrimp cocktail appetize and veal coron bleu for an entree. The check comes and I look at it and tell the respectful, young waiter (a Liberty U. student) that all I have in my wallet is a large denomination “In Reason We Trust” or a couple of smaller “Mohammeds”.

    Do you suppose that KKKristian charity would dictate that the meal be comped?

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