Last year, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed a district court holding that under God in the Pledge of Allegiance is unconstitutional. The Supreme Court, absent Justice Scalia, who has recused himself, will hear arguments today as to whether to uphold the ruling or allow children and others to continue to recite those familiar words.
In yesterday's New York Times, columnist David Brooks made a great suggestion for the justices. He assigned as bedtime reading the book "A Stone of Hope" by David L. Chappell.
Chappell's thesis is that without America's religious beliefs, we never would have had a successful civil rights movement. Chappell argues that there were two groups involved in the civil rights movement. First, there were "mainstream liberals, often white and Northern," who "tended to have an optimistic view of human nature"-these are the utopians who believe that, with government help, public awareness, and education, all the world's ills can be mended. The second group, "mostly black and Southern," were religiously motivated. They included Martin Luther King, Jr., who saw that in a fallen world, justice can only be achieved by a commitment to religious beliefs.
One only has to read King's speeches to see his constant references from the Old Testament prophets. And in his Letters from a Birmingham Jail he cited Augustine and Aquinas to show that an unjust law is no law at all and that God's law sets men free.
Brooks, writing as a Jew, says that whether you believe in the Bible or not you have to agree that it has a deeper and more accurate understanding of human nature than secular social scientists.
In addition to Chappell's book, I recommend that the justices also read "For the Glory of God" by Rodney Stark, an eminent secular social scientist at the University of Washington. Stark shows how Christianity led to great advances in science, the reformation of human behavior, and the end of slavery.
You see, the real question raised by this case is one posed by Phillip Johnson, the Berkeley law professor and founder of the Intelligent Design movement. "If we are not to declare ourselves one nation under God," Johnson asks, "what are we under? The universe? The UN? The goddess Gaia? Or the Supreme Self?" The editorial board of the New York Times, which, despite Brook's superb column, favors the elimination of the words under God, presumably leaving us as one nation under nothing.
But that is the ultimate act of hubris. We declare ourselves free from any moral law or governor higher than the imperial self, and so we become gods. I cannot imagine a more frightening prospect.
Now the fate of the republic doesn't hang on two words, but still this is no small matter. We've seen the steady erosion of Christian influence in American life over the years and a growing hostility to those who hold that the one, true sovereign God called us into being and reigns over us. The Court's decision will be one more step toward the official establishment of secularism as American religion. And it will tell much about our values, humility, and our capacity to love and respect one another.
Brooks suggests that the most important thing at the moment is to try to understand what the phrase one nation under God might mean. "That's not proselytizing," he concludes, "it's citizenship." To that I say, Amen.