The government, at least in theory, is supposed to be neutral on matters of theology, neither favoring religion nor irreligion.
In a 1989 case called Texas Monthly v. Bullock, Justice William Brennan wrote, “In proscribing all laws ‘respecting an establishment of religion,’ the Constitution prohibits, at the very least, legislation that constitutes an endorsement of one or another set of religious beliefs or of religion generally.”
That’s what the high court said. But you don’t have to look beyond the money in your pocket, which is embossed with “In God We Trust,” to see that they didn’t really mean it.
And if one Supreme Court justice has his way, the court will make it explicit that it didn’t mean it.
Antonin Scalia, speaking at Archbishop Rummel High School in Metairie, La., on Saturday, told a crowd that nothing in the Constitution requires the government to be neutral between religion and non-religion.
“To tell you the truth, there is no place for that in our constitutional tradition,” Scalia said. “Where did that come from? To be sure, you can’t favor one denomination over another but can’t favor religion over non-religion?”
According to the Associated Press, Scalia opined that there is “nothing wrong” with ceremonial endorsements of religion by government officials. He added that our nation must honor God because God has treated the United States well.
“God has been very good to us,” Scalia remarked. “That we won the revolution was extraordinary. The Battle of Midway was extraordinary. I think one of the reasons God has been good to us is that we have done him honor. Unlike the other countries of the world that do not even invoke his name we do him honor. In presidential addresses, in Thanksgiving proclamations and in many other ways.
“There is nothing wrong with that, and do not let anybody tell you that there is anything wrong with that,” Scalia added. He also said that courts should not “cram it down the throats of an American people that has always honored God on the pretext that the Constitution requires it.”
These comments are nothing new for Scalia. In fact, he has been delivering similar speeches at religious institutions for a several years now. In October of 2014, for example, Scalia told a crowd at Colorado Christian University, “We do Him [God] honor in our Pledge of Allegiance, in all our public ceremonies. There’s nothing wrong with that. It is in the best of American traditions, and don’t let anybody tell you otherwise. I think we have to fight that tendency of the secularists to impose it on all of us through the Constitution.”
At that time, I noted in a column for the American Constitution Society (ACS) that Scalia is essentially advocating for a kind of establishment of the god of “ceremonial deism,” a sort of generic, watered down pseudo-religion that courts have conjured up as a way of allowing things like “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance and “In God We Trust” on money to continue.
There are several problems with ceremonial deism, but chief among them is that it celebrates a god that no one worships – or should want to worship, for that matter. As I noted in the ACS column, the courts are laboring under the delusion that the god of ceremonial deism is everyone’s god – but in reality it is no one’s god.
Despite what Scalia seems to think, the god of ceremonial deism doesn’t hark back to the founders, and our secular Constitution serves to rebuke the wayward justice. Instead, the deity Scalia so prizes was created in the 1950s to smack down “godless communism” and link god and country to serve jingoistic, xenophobic and nationalistic goals. It still frequently plays that role today.
An echo of this thinking is found in Scalia’s assertion that “God has been very good to [America]” – a bit of unsophisticated theological doggerel akin to a sibling boast that mom likes me better than you. People throughout history have believed God to be on their side – often just before they do something horrible.
Scalia has been on the court since 1986. In March, he will be 80 years old. Although he appears vigorous, there’s a good chance he’ll have to retire in the next few years. With any luck, his views on church-state relations, which seem to be anchored in the late-19th century (as does much of Scalia’s worldview), will go out the courthouse door with him and never return.