4 Ways Christianity Sneaks Into Our Secular Government — And Why it Matters

In God We Trust
“In God We Trust” on the money. “Under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance. Creches and crosses on public land. Religious mottos on public buildings. Prayers starting public government meetings. Prayers in the public schools. If you didn’t know better, you’d think the religious right was right, and the United States really was a Christian nation.

Of course it’s not. The United States is a secular nation. The principle that citizens have the right to reach their own conclusions about religion, and that government should stay out of that choice, is deeply enshrined in the foundation of our government, in the First Amendment and elsewhere. This separation of state and church was not accidental or an oversight — it was written into the Constitution by careful, conscious choice, made against significant pushback. And the country has citizens who are Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, Wiccan, “spiritual but not religious,” many other religions — plus, of course, citizens without any religion at all.

Yet what often gets called “ceremonial deism” is all over our government. Now, when this “ceremonial deism” get challenged in court, it typically gets defended — and is often even upheld by judges — on the grounds that it isn’t really religious. In court, its defenders argue that all this God talk is obviously just tradition, without any actual religious meaning. (How could you silly people think that “God” means something religious?) But when you look at the ideas and motivations driving this “ceremonial deism,” it becomes clear that it’s anything but secular. Passionate religious belief is driving every one of these battles. It wouldn’t be defended so fiercely if real religious fervor weren’t behind it. And every one of these “ceremonial” incursions of religion into government gets used — on the ground, in tangible, real-world ways — to marginalize non-believers, and to treat them as second-class citizens.

Here are four ways that the concept of God gets into government — and pushes atheist citizens to the sidelines.


This begins my latest piece for AlterNet, 4 Ways Christianity Sneaks Into Our Secular Government — And Why it Matters. To find out how “synbolic” religion gets into our government — and how it has an effect on our citizens that’s very real indeed — read the rest of the piece. Enjoy!

4 Ways Christianity Sneaks Into Our Secular Government — And Why it Matters

13 thoughts on “4 Ways Christianity Sneaks Into Our Secular Government — And Why it Matters

  1. 2

    If we want to be truly inclusive of all religions, shouldn’t the motto be IN GODS WE TRUST?
    Of course that would still be offensive to atheists, but it would also offend most fundamentalists, so it would be a net gain.

  2. 3

    Creches and crosses on public land.

    Creches on public land?? Ah, this word must have a different meaning in the US than it does in the UK (… and according to Mr Google it does, well well). I take it that you wouldn’t object to British-sense creches on public land.

  3. 4

    Some of the comments at alternet are *headdesk* worthy….

    Great article Greta. This topic has been a personal hobby of mine for a number of years now. So much so, that when I met Ellory Schempp at the ffrf convention a few years ago, he knew who I was! Talk about a small world.

  4. 5

    Having “Under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance is prayer in the public schools.

    Why do Americans have a pledge of allegiance in public schools anyway? It seems rather fascist to force children to give vows of loyalty to the state. I’d even say it’s worse than making them offer devotions to an imagined supernatural entity. The latter is just silly; the former puts one foot into the territory of totalitarianism.

  5. 7

    Why do Americans have a pledge of allegiance in public schools anyway? It seems rather fascist to force children to give vows of loyalty to the state.

    That’s another big issue with the culture over here. We’re still stuck in the Red Scare, where everyone has to be waving the flag at all times and display their faith in the One True God every day, since we all know those Commie atheists melt under the supernatural power of our chants and loyalty oaths.

    Why aren’t you saying it? You’re not saying it because you know you’ll melt, Comrade! Everybody, I’ve found a Commie spy! He refuses to say the pledge because he knows he’ll melt because he’s a Communist! Why else would he refuse?

  6. 8

    From the Language Log “eggcorns” archive:

    Our daughter Sophia just started kindergarten. Last week I asked her to tell me about school. Our conversation went like this:

    Me: Tell me something interesting about kindergarten today, honey.
    Sophia: Well, there’s the pleasant legions.
    Me: The pleasant legions?
    Sophia: Yeah, it’s like a prayer to the flag.

  7. 9

    The supreme irony is how many of the early Christian martyrs chose death rather than participate in the ceremonial deism of the day. I mean, no one actually worshipped the deified emperors, it was just mandatory to show your devotion to their ideals by offering up some incense. How hard could that be?

    I really wonder if the Talibangelicals would be so supportive of ceremonial deism if they lived in Rome during the first century.

  8. 10

    The original pledge is a wonderful statement. Too bad it didn’t last.

    A while back I watched Frank Capra’s ‘Why We Fight’ documentaries from the Second World War. The first one is most famous, as Capra used German, Italian, and Japanese propaganda footage to show how hideous the face of fascism was. In one of the later ones, there is a scene of US schoolkids reciting the pledge. The power of the phrase ‘one nation, indivisible’ was palpable over the gap of all these years.

    Here again is the proto-pledge (deletions emphasised):

    I pledge allegiance to MY FLAG.
    and to the republic for which it stands
    One nation, Indivisible
    With liberty, EQUALITY, and justice for all.

    Equality got the ax almost immediately, the flag ceased to belong to the pledger during WWI, and the nation was divided in 1954.

  9. 11

    All over the United States — from New York to North Carolina, from Delaware to Indiana…

    I’m no expert in American geography, but that strikes me as a small part of a big nation.

  10. 12

    Whenever I’ve heard someone make the ‘ceremonial deism’ argument (law school) I’ve struggled with the urge to ask them if I should consider them seriously. ‘It’s vitally important that GOD stay on our money but not because it means something religious.”<–ok so then what does it mean that's worth you getting spiting mad?

    [what was wrong with "from the many, one"? It's what our founding fathers wanted. Are you not a good patriot??]

    As to the creche – I had to look up the UK usage. I figured it as what we in the US call 'day care.' The US usage 'creche' almost always refers to the scene little baby jesus being served as cow food with his parents and often 3 wise men in attendance. It goes up 30 seconds after Thanksgiving and is the primary symbol of christian christmas (as opposed to commercial christmas which has santa claus as the primary symbol (or teh decorated trees, you pick)).

    As to the pledge – yep, I generally stood there and didn't say it. I wasn't bothered (at the time) that I was flagging myself as 'a problem'. I also didn't sing the Indian National Anthem promising to support India forever back when I was in school there.

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