Homage to our deity

At one level it makes perfect sense that the U.S. House of Representatives debated last week, and ultimately approved, a law making ?In God We Trust? our national motto. Never mind that it already was the national motto, guaranteed by an act of Congress in 1956 and reaffirmed in 2002. After all, when new polling shows congressional popularity is at an all-time low of 14 percent, paying homage to our national deity is a pretty safe legislative initiative.

Beyond seeing through the transparent political motivation, we should ask ourselves every once in a while: Who is this god we so often call upon as a nation? Is it the God of the Old and New testaments?the ?Christian God?? The answer is ?not exactly.? The god of our national motto is the god of American civil religion, and the wonderful thing about this god and our national motto is that people of all faiths?and those of no religious faith?have an umbrella under which to stand and pray and pledge their allegiance…and be united.

One writer has put it, ?Civil religion is not a state religion, but rather an expression that religionizes national values, national heroes, national history and national ideals.? This is why, for example, Congress and the Supreme Court can open their sessions with prayer and children attending our public schools cannot. The two prayers are directed to different gods.

Daniel Marsh of Boston University points out the similarities between biblical history and American history in his book, ?Unto the Generations: The Roots of True American?ism.? He writes: ?The American?s book of Genesis is the Mayflower Compact. Our exodus is the Declaration of Independence. Our book of the law is the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. We have our periodic prophecies, the greatest being Washington?s farewell address. Our psalms include the ?Star Spangled Banner? and ?God Bless America.??

Civil religion provides religious means and modes to express patriotism. Civil religion and regular religion are so similar in mode and mood that it?s easy to merge the two into one worship service, like many American churches do on the Sunday near the Fourth of July.

So, while we justifiably can be cynical about Congress?s most recent reaffirmation of ?In God We Trust? as our national motto, we also can relax, knowing that the god of American civil religion to whom we pay homage requires little of us except to pursue life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. ?DR

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