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One nation, under judgment, with consequences for all

No one expects this past summer’s Federal court decision striking “under God” from the Pledge of Allegiance to stand. Indeed, after a day of being vilified from coast to coast (“wacko” being one of the kinder descriptions deployed), Judge Alfred Goodwin stayed the application of his panel’s decision, which will likely be reversed by the full Ninth Circuit or by the U.S. Supreme Court.

I’ve no brief for aggressively secularizing Federal judges who imagine themselves the only thing standing between the Republic and the Salem witchcraft trials, or whatever their contemporary equivalent might be. In fairness, though, one has to admit that poor Judge Goodwin wasn’t making things up on his own. Rather, he followed the logic of the Supreme Court’s Church/state jurisprudence for the past fifty-five years.

As commentator Ramesh Ponnuru has pointed out, the Supremes have often held that both the federal government and state governments must avoid even the appearance of “endorsing” religion, just as they have ruled that prayers at graduations and prayers before football games put untoward social “pressure” on students and are thus unconstitutional “establishments” of religion. Neither claim makes much constitutional sense. But if they reflect the state of the Church/state question at the highest appellate level, then Judge Goodwin was right. Conversely, if Goodwin got it wrong, then there must be something wrong with the path down which the Supreme Court has led the country since World War II.

Were legal scholars, the Federal bench, and political leaders to think this through carefully — and that’s a very large “if” — then Goodwin’s decision, ironically enough, just might compel a wholesale re-thinking of the issue of Church and state in America.

Be that as it may, there’s a further point that Catholic social doctrine and Catholic thinking about American public life would want to bring to any renewed Church/state discussion. More thoughtful secularists (who are not to be confused with the Christophobes and the militant atheists who break out into hives at the very mention of “God”) argue that the phrase “under God” smacks of spiritual pride, which can lead to national hubris, which can lead to disaster. The Catholic answer to that argument is – you’re right, it’s a temptation. If, in the Old Testament, national hubris was a temptation for God’s uniquely chosen nation, Israel, it can be a temptation for us, too, particularly at a time when the United States is the world’s only great power.

If we understand it correctly, though, the phrase “under God” in the pledge does not smack of arrogance; rather, it’s a confession of humility. For to say that this is a nation “under God” is to confess that we are a nation under judgment. It’s to concede that the justice of our laws is measured by a higher law — the moral law. It’s to commit ourselves to weighing questions of public policy, not by criteria of utility alone, but by a nobler standard: does this policy reflect and enhance the inalienable dignity and value of the human person? To pledge our loyalties to a nation “under God” is to hold ourselves accountable to something other than our national self-aggrandizement; a nation “under God” is a nation that is accepting a broader responsibility.

If we’re not “under judgment,” as individuals and as a nation, then the way we live is without consequence. Absent a sense of obligation that transcends the dizzying here and now of the pleasure principle, we really are just congealed stardust — and what we do with, or to, ourselves has no real bearing on anything. Individuals are born and die; so do nations. Big deal. That cynical, and ultimately despairing, view of the human condition is what’s implied by the claim that we are not a nation “under God,” under judgment.

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Was there a special providential purpose at work in the founding of a new nation “conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal”? I think so; but I cannot be sure. I am sure of this: such a nation must constantly remind itself that it is under judgment, if it is to keep faith with the promise of its founding.

George Weigel
George Weigel
George Weigel is a Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. His column is distributed by the Denver Catholic.

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