Not-So-Civil Religion: The Long-Running Fraud of “Ceremonial Deism”

I occasionally meet with delegations of visitors from overseas as part of a program run by the US State Department. The visitors, usually government officials, academics, or religious leaders, are curious to learn about the way religion and government interact in the United States. It’s my job to tell them.

Some come from nations where conservative versions of Islam are promulgated by law, while others are from European nations where state-established churches still exist.

No matter where these guests come from, during the question-and-answer session, one of them will inevitably ask something like: “If the United States has this firm separation policy, then why do we see a religious phrase on your money?”

It’s a good question, and I wish I had a better answer than, “Well, our Supreme Court lacks the courage to give this issue the hearing it really deserves.”

Instead, I usually provide a little history lesson and talk about how the phrase, “In God We Trust,” doesn’t really have long roots in American history. It wasn’t codified for use on American currency until 1956, the same year the phrase became our official national motto and two years after the words “under God” were slipped into the Pledge of Allegiance. All of this was a reaction to the “godless communists” in the Soviet Union with whom we were locked in an ideological cold war.

Some of these practices have been challenged over the years. Instead of dealing with them head-on, the federal courts have tended to rely on a cop-out, asserting that these things are merely artifacts of something called “civil religion.” That is, the idea that generic and incidental references to a deity for largely ceremonial purposes don’t rise to the level of a church-state violation.

It has always been a weak claim. Where in the US Constitution does it say that the federal government can establish a watered-down civil religion? Even worse is the tendency to refer to these practices as “ceremonial deism,” a phrase that is yet another legal dodge.

You don’t run into many deists these days. More common during the colonial era, deism holds that there is a God (or some kind of primary animating force behind the creation of the universe) that set things in motion. But this deity no longer interacts with humankind for whatever reason.

What we see on our coins and paper money, what we recite in our pledge, and what we see on the walls of some government buildings isn’t really “ceremonial deism.” That’s a phrase some courts have adopted to find a reason not to strike down these practices. But a hard look at the situation reveals that the ceremonial deism argument simply makes no sense.

Why do so many politicians want us to “trust” in God? (Aside from their tendency to pose as holier than thou to win votes, that is.) Why do they ask a deity to bless us? Why do they declare so often that the United States enjoys most favored nation status with God and assert that this supreme being is on our side?

They don’t say these things because they believe this god is impotent. Quite the contrary: they believe (some of them, anyway) that if we pray to this god, worship this god and do things to please this god, the powerful deity will in turn smile upon us and shower us with blessings.

In short, the god being appealed to in the Pledge of Allegiance, on our money, and celebrated in our national motto is not the god of deism, ceremonial or otherwise. That god washed his hands of us a long time ago. That god put the whole shebang into motion and then wandered off, perhaps to do it somewhere else. That god is not hearing anyone’s prayers.

To most Americans, the god of ceremonial deism is a strange god. Very few Americans (if any) worship that deity. The real god of our national civil religion, by contrast, is a typical god, the kind found in just about every major world religion—a god who answers prayers, a god who gives you good things when you please him and smites you when he’s angry.

There is simply no way that the American political leaders who “godded up” the money, the pledge, and the motto in the 1950s were trying to appease the cold, distant deity of deism. They had in mind the Judeo-Christian God, and they wanted it made clear that he—yes, they perceived him as male—was on our side.

Want further proof? Consider the origins of the phrase “In God We Trust.” Although its use on all currency wasn’t mandated until the 1950s, it actually first began appearing on coins in northern states during the Civil War. During the early days of the war, a pastor in Pennsylvania became convinced that things were going badly for the North because God had turned his back on the nation. He wrote to Salmon P. Chase, secretary of the Treasury, and suggested that the phrase “God Is Our Trust” be added to coins. Chase liked the idea but tweaked the wording a bit. The phrase began appearing on coinage sporadically. Again, no deism here—God was supposed to help us win a war!

Throughout its history, the phrase “In God We Trust” has been vested with almost mystical powers. It was said to have the power to ward off communism, fight juvenile delinquency, and make our nation healthy, happy, and prosperous.

In President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s America, many people probably agreed with that. But Eisenhower is long dead, and much has changed. Today, civil religion is a constant reminder to nonbelievers, agnostics, skeptics, and polytheists that their government believes the following: there is one God. It is a good thing to trust in this God. Real Americans do that. You should too.

The government promotes that message every day in thousands of public schools. We hear it just about every time a politician concludes a speech. The message is posted on buildings meant to represent and serve us all. It’s as close as the coins rattling in your pocket.

The federal government broadcasts this message constantly, reminding millions of Americans that they are little better than second-class citizens in their own nation.

This isn’t harmless. It’s not mere ceremony. It’s a violation of the fundamental right of conscience. Just once, it would be nice to hear a court acknowledge that obvious fact.