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.