Having just returned from a promotional tour for my book, "Godtalk: Travels In Spiritual America," I was prepared for the response to the federal court ruling that the words "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance were unconstitutional. As CNN put the reaction story into heavy rotation, the energy of those arguing--pro and con--didn't surprise me. Especially con: the senators pledging allegiance on the Capitol steps; the irate messages left on the answering machine of the instigator of the lawsuit. I knew from my recent travels that Godtalk is America's most all-absorbing conversation at the moment. No button is hotter.
The irony is that this unofficial national symposium on spirituality owes much of its energy to the very Establishment clause the 9th Circuit based its ruling on-the Constitution's admonishment to keep church and state separate. Our religiosity has been well-documented and often stated: as many as 95 percent of Americans will say they believe in God, In the European nations, with their history of aligning church and state, the figure is closer to 50 percent. The Founding Fathers, versed in Enlightenment principles, might have expected the opposite: that unlinking government and religion would eventually lead to a society entirely disinterested in God. Instead, their hands-off approach has produced a country obsessed with God, its citizens in serious pursuit of spiritual happiness.
This logic tracks pretty clearly with my personal experience. Raised by secular suburban parents in northeastern Pennsylvania during the '50s and '60s, I never saw the inside of a church until I had myself baptized by a Presbyterian minister at age 13. Puberty was the moment I twigged to my own self-starter awakening. I came forward at a screening at my high school of a Billy Graham Crusade film, "The Cross and the Switchblade"; I watched "Mass for Shut-Ins" every week on TV and waited enviously as my friend Bobby disappeared into the chapel for confession on Saturday afternoons. My parents' indifference led to a full-hearted passion for faith. I didn't want to be left out.
The battle over "Under God" is as much a Connotational Crisis as a Constitutional Crisis, played out not only between aetheists and believers, but between the country's Judeo-Christian past and its multifaith present (see chart). With the repeal of the Asian Exclusion Act in 1965, the United States' immigration quotas from Asian countries were put on a par with Europe. Deepak Chopra arrived in New Jersey from India for a medical internship in 1969 as part of the subcontinental "brain drain" that followed. By the time his son Gotham graduated from Columbia University a quarter century later, a generation of young Hindus and Muslims had grown up on the same episodes of "Beverly Hills 90210" as everyone else. They adapted their Godtalk as well: I've heard Hindu gurus and Muslim Imams routinely refer to "God" as a standard English translation of "Atman" or "Allah." The picture of congressmen telegenically pledging allegiance on the Capital steps has connotations that are hardly as generous or inclusive.
But those trying to guard the old connotations have no need to worry. If the United States is not "under God" it's at least still "all about God." A workable metaphor may be laissez-faire capitalism itself: left to its own devices, the spiritual marketplace is lively and full of seekers committed to its continued health. If, as religious historians tell us, American spiritual interest is as cyclical as the market, we're certainly in a boom phase. Those who insist on linking religious belief to its past connotations do so at the risk of bringing in a bust, and seeing 50 percent, rather than 95 percent, of Americans finding a compelling resonance in the word "God."