In God We Must

“As I'm standing in line, I'm looking at the twenty-dollar bill, and it says 'In God We Trust'… I thought, 'What is going on here? I don't trust in God. I'm an American.” &#0151 Michael Newdow

California physician and lawyer Michael Newdow filed a lawsuit that reached the Ninth US Circuit Court of Appeals in 2002. Newdow claimed that the phrase “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance, was offensive to him as an atheist, and a violation of the separation of church and state. He further alleged that the recitation of the Pledge in his daughter’s public school interfered with his right to direct her religious beliefs. The Ninth Circuit agreed. Subsequently Michael Newdow became Time magazine’s Person of the Week on June 28, 2002.

Although the court’s ruling was later overturned on a technicality, Newdow has been dogged in his efforts to rid the Pledge of its reference to God. A key to his argument is that “under God” was not part of the original Pledge and, thus, represents an imposition of religion by the government.

Newdow is partly right. The Pledge, as first penned in 1892, did not mention God. But in 1954, with the rising influence of communism, there was concern that the Pledge sounded too similar to the affirmations of atheistic regimes. Thus, Congress amended the Pledge to its current verbiage.

Was the revision an effort to coerce religion on the citizenry? Was it an unconstitutional endorsement of religion? Or was it intended as a reminder of our country’s historical foundation?

Historical Roots

At the heart of the American experiment is the Declaration of Independence. By proclaiming opposition to the monarchal rule of England and by announcing the guiding principles of the new republic, the Declaration of Independence is the cornerstone of the United States rule of law.

Whereas under the British governmental system, the rights of citizens came from the king, the founders of the new republic acknowledged a different source: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal: that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights…”

Similar sentiments are found in the statements of founding fathers like George Washington, who said in his inaugural address, “No people can be bound to acknowledge and adore the Invisible Hand which conducts the affairs of men more than the people of the United States.” A clearer statement of Washington’s belief in the need for transcendent order is reflected in his personal journal: “It is impossible to rightly govern the world without God and the Bible.”

Many cite Thomas Jefferson and his famous “wall of separation” to argue that America should be one continuous religion-free zone. Yet Jefferson, who authorized federal funding to build churches on Indian reservations, wrote in his Notes to the State of Virginia 1785, “God who gave us life gave us liberty. Can the liberties of a nation be secure when we have removed the conviction that these liberties are a gift of God?”

How about Abraham Lincoln, who, in his second inaugural address, referenced God fourteen times in a speech of only seven hundred words, and who coined the now controversial phrase at the conclusion of his Gettysburg Address: “We here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain, that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom…” (emphasis added).

Then there was Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, who wrote in Zorach v. Clauson (1952), “We are a religious people and our institutions presuppose a Supreme Being. We cannot read into the Bill of Rights a philosophy of hostility to religion.”

Engraved in Stone

Anyone still questioning the religious heritage of our country need only examine the countless edifices of our nation’s capital. Prominent portrayals and references to the Creator-God are displayed at the Washington Monument, the Jefferson and Lincoln Memorials, the US Capitol, the Library of Congress, the White House, the World War II Memorial, and Arlington National Cemetery, among others. Engravings, images, and sculptures of the Bible, the crucifix, Moses, and the Ten Commandments stand as enduring testimonies to our country’s indebtedness to God.

Interestingly, some of the most overt representations of our Judeo-Christian heritage are displayed at the Supreme Court building. For example, an image of Moses with the Ten Commandments is displayed in the sculpture over the east portico of the Supreme Court and in a picture inside the actual courtroom. The Ten Commandments are also engraved on the Supreme Court doors and over the chair of the chief justice. Furthermore, each session of the court begins with the announcement, “God save the United States and this honorable court.”

The irony is that the Supreme Court’s interpretation of the Establishment Clause in Everson v. Board of Education (1947) has been marshaled to deem such public displays unconstitutional in states like Alabama and Kentucky.

Why It Matters

While the great majority of Americans appreciate these public expressions of our country’s religious heritage, the Michael Newdows of the world are incensed by such displays and are intent on cleansing the public square &#0151 from money to monuments &#0151 of any religious representations. But why all the fuss? After all, aren’t we only talking about words and images?

Perhaps the clearest defense of the issue’s importance was given by Jewish author Kevin Abrams, who asserted, “Remove the Bible as the constellation that guides the American Ship of State and the whole edifice of American civilization collapses.”

Like the Framers, Abrams understands that an institution’s presuppositions mean everything. In a nation under God, it is God who gives rights to people who, in turn, transfer some of their rights to the state to govern.

But in the atheistic vision of Michael Newdow, rights come from the state, which, in turn, grants some of those rights to the people. Having no transcendent basis, liberties are ultimately determined, as Malcolm Muggeridge once commented, “[by] the drive for power or the drive for pleasure, the clenched fist or the phallus, Hitler or Hugh Heffner.”

Newdow launched his crusade, he told Time, after noticing that the money he was carrying had the inscription, “In God We Trust.” Upset over this “breach” of church-state separation, Newdow felt that his best chance to win was to protest the Pledge of Allegiance his daughter was required to recite; this, despite the fact that Newdow’s daughter was not yet in school and was a professed Christian who did not object to the Pledge.

After Newdow’s suit was dismissed because he lacked sufficient standing to represent his daughter (who was under the primary custody of his estranged wife), Newdow filed another suit, earlier this year, on the behalf of three other parents for an identical grievance. In September, the US district court reviewing that case concluded that the Pledge was not unconstitutional, but decided that the recitation policy of the plaintiff’s school district was.

Emboldened by that half-win, Newdow recently came full circle, announcing his intent to get “In God We Trust” removed from US currency.

Starting as a Hobby

“It all started out as a hobby,” said Newdow, who also admitted to having had aspirations for political office. But, he complained, “in America, if you’re an atheist, you lose,” leaving him to wage the battle in the courts.

One gets the sense that Newdow is less concerned about his daughter’s welfare than he is about imposing a godless agenda that goes far beyond religious neutrality. By discounting the religious foundation of our country and demanding that public commemorations of it be expunged, Newdow’s agenda amounts to a religious hostility that those like former Justice Douglas have refuted.

The guiding light of this agenda is found in the solitary creed of the First Amendmist “Church,” which Newdow founded in 1997, and the Universal Life Church, of which he is an ordained minister: “Do only that which is right.” “Right,” of course, being determined by each individual, free from moral correction or criticism. The “end in mind” is moral autonomy: a state of radical individualism, in which the ideal of freedom has been recast from the liberty to pursue happiness through virtuous living, to a license to pursue fulfillment through unrestrained self-expression.

Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes once wrote that when it came to the law, “the ultimate question is what the dominant forces of the community want and [whether] they want it hard enough to disregard whatever inhibitions may stand in the way.”

What we are seeing is the natural development of Holmes’ ends-justifies-the-means logic, where even the best interests of our children can be disregarded in the pursuit of our personal desires. What was it Muggeridge said about the clinched fist or the phallus?

(This update courtesy of the Breakpoint with Chuck Colson.)


Regis Nicoll is a retired nuclear engineer and a fellow of the Colson Center who writes commentary on faith and culture. He is a frequent contributor to Crisis Magazine and the author of “Why There Is a God and Why It Matters," is available from Amazon. 

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