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What We Talk About When We Talk About God
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The Pledge case isn't going to be ruled on until this summer, but hopefully there will be more thoughtful commentary, like this piece in The New Republic, leading up to the ruling, and after the ruling.

The author, Wieseltier, focuses on the words, their meaning, and the impact that meaning has on both religion and politics. He concludes that both lose meaning and dignity if each are used for one another's ends. I tend to agree.

And throughout the piece, there are many well-written passages. I'll highlight a few:

First on the basic arguments of the government in the case...

The solicitor general stood before the Court to argue against the plain meaning of ordinary words. In the Pledge of Allegiance, the government insisted, the word "God" does not refer to God. It refers to a reference to God. The government's argument, as it was stated in the brief filed by Theodore B. Olson, was made in two parts. The first part was about history, the second part was about society. "The Pledge's reference to 'a Nation under God,'" the solicitor general maintained, "is a statement about the Nation's historical origins, its enduring political philosophy centered on the sovereignty of the individual." The allegedly religious words in the Pledge are actually just "descriptive"--the term kept recurring in the discussion--of the mentality of the people who established the United States.

This is an utterly ridiculous argument, and Wieseltier does a good job skewering it. If it were descriptive of the beliefs of others, the Pledge would plainly refer to those beliefs one context up: " nation, founded by people who believed in god, indivisible..."

This is known as the "reference to a reference" argument...and it's dumb.

Easily as dumb is the "watering down" argument, that the word "god" doesn't really mean god. Rather, it means whatever you want it to mean, including "not god".

Justice Breyer wondered, in a challenge to Newdow, whether the words "under God" referred only to a "supreme being." Citing United States v. Seeger from 1965, though he might have illustrated his speculation more vividly with the historical precedent of the Cult of the Supreme Being in revolutionary Paris, Breyer proposed that such a faith "in any ordinary person's life fills the same place as belief in God fills in the life of an orthodox religionist," and so "it's reaching out to be inclusive"--so inclusive, in fact, that it may satisfy a non-believer such as Newdow. Breyer suggested that the God in "under God" is "this kind of very comprehensive supreme being, Seeger-type thing." And he posed an extraordinary question to Newdow: "So do you think that God is so generic in this context that it could be that inclusive, and if it is, then does your objection disappear?"

Needless to say, Newdow's objection did not disappear, because it is one of the admirable features of atheism to take God seriously. Newdow's reply was unforgettable: "I don't think that I can include 'under God' to mean 'no God,' which is exactly what I think. I deny the existence of God." The sound of those words in that room gave me what I can only call a constitutional thrill. This is freedom.

Yes...and along with that exhilaration, for me at least, comes a sense of embarassment at having such ridiculous arguments fall from the lips of the highest judges in our land.

The author then goes on to point out the obvious, that the words, taken at face value, don't describe our history:

There are two words in the phrase "under God." Each of them is indeed descriptive--but it is not our history that they describe. They describe our cosmos. Or rather, they purport to describe our cosmos. They make a statement about the universe, they paint a picture of what exists. This statement and this picture is either true or false. Either there is a God and we are under Him--the spatial metaphor, the image of a vertical reality, is one of the most ancient devices of religion--or there is not a God and we are not under Him.

Yes, and in this country you should be able to believe either of these propositions, and still be an American, and still be a patriot (though you don't really have to be one of those either...if you don't want to).

So what is the impact on religion of saying that the words don't really mean what they obviously mean?

There is no greater insult to religion than to expel strictness of thought from it. Yet such an expulsion is one of the traits of contemporary American religion, as the discussion at the Supreme Court demonstrated. Religion in America is more and more relaxed and "customized," a jolly affair of hallowed self-affirmation, a religion of a holy whatever. Speaking about God is prized over thinking about God. Say "under God" even if you don't mean under God. And if you mean under God, don't be tricked into giving an account of what you mean by it.


Wieseltier makes some great points in this essay, but above all this is one of the best...that it's a bit pathetic that an atheist is the one bringing this case, since it's forcing otherwise devout and intelligent people into arguing that their conception and belief in god is really very weak, fuzzy, and that ultimately believers, not non-believers, have more to lose by the co-mingling of church and state.

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