"Under God"

Francis Beckwith francis.beckwith at mac.com
Thu Apr 1 22:15:30 PST 2004

Michael makes some good points. But I believe that the plausibility of his
points--namely, that there have been "sins" and we can detect them by
investigating history--shows that we have an intuitive awareness of moral
principles that are not contingent on time or circumstances, for we employ
them, as Michael does, to make judgments about past times and future hopes.
The Founders believed that these principles are knowable and are the basis
on which Constitutional government is justified.  They also believed that
these principles cannot have their origin in our will, for willfulness
cannot itself be the ground of the will's normative function.  They reasoned
that principles that are universal, immaterial, and knowable must reside in
a being who could be the ground of these principles.   So, it could not be a
contingent intelligence, one whose existence and moral authority is
dependent upon something else outside itself.    For in order to be the
ground of these principles, a being must not receive its existence and moral
authority from another, for that other being, if it is not contingent, would
then be the ground of these principles.  Moreover, the Source of these
principles must be the sort of being who has the moral authority to enforce
universal norms.   Therefore, the Source of these principles must be a
self-existent, perfectly good being whose appropriate realm is the universe.
It seems that it is fitting to call such a being "God."

Now, I know, I know that not everyone's going to agree with this reasoning.
And I know that there are steps in this argument about which one may raise
questions. But it is not obviously an unreasonable line of reasoning, and it
is the sort of  understanding some of the Founders had about our rights and
their relationship to God.

The reasoning here is "secular," not based on claims of revelation or the
edicts of churches.  Its purpose is secular as well, since it is an argument
that attempts to ground principles of a Constitutional government that is
committed to religious liberty. Because a vast majority of citizens are
theists of some sort, it provides a strong reason for them to embrace the
principles of religious liberty and disestablishment.  Its conclusion is, of
course, theological. But if a theological conclusion derived from secular
premises is the best ground on which to base religious liberty, a secular
purpose, then the Pledge stands. Of course, students who want to opt out of
the Pledge recitation on religious or irreligious grounds may do so, but
only because the government acknowledges the natural rights they possess
from a being who they think wrong to acknowledge in a public recitation of
the the Pledge. 


On 4/1/04 9:28 PM, "Newsom Michael" <mnewsom at law.howard.edu> wrote:

> If America was -- and still is -- the Protestant Empire that I believe
> it to be, it would seem to follow that Beckwith is right.  The phrase
> "under God" arguably reaffirms that fact.
> I, of course, am not a fan of the Protestant Empire, for reasons which
> should be fairly clear to most of the readers of this listserv.  I don't
> see America's history as Providential, responding to some "manifest
> destiny."  I do see racial and religious minorities struggling mightily
> to establish their legitimacy as Americans quite without regard to the
> reigning norms of the evangelical Protestant majority.  Sometimes they
> win, sometimes they lose.
> My dislike of the phrase in the Pledge is based on my belief that our
> history and my personal experience mock the claim that this country is
> "under God," or at least that is my view.
> For the fans of the phrase, however, there is no small irony in the fact
> that it more accurately refers to the God of Ceremonial Deism than it
> does to the God of evangelical Protestantism, for example.  Ceremonial
> Deism most nearly resembles Unitarianism.  Not Methodism or
> Presbyterianism or Pentecostalism or the religion of the Baptizing
> sects.  But that is for others to sort out.  Ceremonial Deism undermines
> evangelical Protestantism for it is neither Trinitarian nor Biblicist.
> So for Trinitarian Biblicist Christians to rush to the defense of the
> phrase (and for Catholics and Jews and Muslims and others also) strikes
> me as very strange indeed.  (I could offer up my explanation as to why I
> believe that evangelical Protestants would acquiesce in Ceremonial Deism
> as our de facto established religion, even though I think that
> Ceremonial Deism is, in the long haul, against their interests, but not
> in this post.)  This is not to say that there is anything wrong with
> Unitarianism.  But it is to say that it is a rather different religion
> that that of Trinitarians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, and others.
> That's all.
> Given our history, we would do well to take separation of church and
> state rather more seriously.  Tying God to the sins of our national past
> is, at the very least, presumptuous.  There are other words I could use
> to describe that, but I will refrain.  Most people probably disagree
> with my take on our national history.  But I think that the question is
> how one assesses our history, not some abstract notions about why we
> need to root certain social and civic "goods" in "God."
> The phrase ought to go, but I would vote, were I on the Court, to keep
> it in the Pledge.  It is, of course, not because I care for the phrase,
> for I don't.  My concern is that we have enough on our national plate
> right now that we don't need the brouhaha surrounding the saying of and
> the text of the Pledge in addition.  I think that there is a limit to
> the number of contentious issues that a democratic polity can reasonably
> be expected to handle at any given time.  I think that a lot of
> Americans misapprehend the real theological meaning of the phrase, but,
> again, that is just my view.  We will just have to put up with it and
> for what I suspect will be for a good long while.
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