1/9/2009—Yesterday, the newspapers were buzzing with two questions concerning President Obama’s inauguration: would Obama finish the oath of office with the words, “so help me God” and would Michael Newdow, late of his court challenge to the Pledge of Allegiance, be permitted to sue in federal court to bar all references to God at the inauguration?
The simple answers to the questions are yes and no. Yes, Obama will say “So help me God” because, aside from whether he seeks God’s aid, to fail to say this formula would cost him tremendous political support he has already shown he is not going to throw away. Obama did not run with God during the campaign to change course now.
As for Newdow, I presume he lacks standing to bring this challenge, whatever the merits. This seems like the classic instance of a “generalized grievance” that federal courts refuse to hear.
But there is a deeper and more troubling question: are we destined to go on in this stupid way? Are there really only two choices—either we ban all references to divinity or we endorse biblical monotheism? This is not just the woodiness of secularists. The United States Supreme Court has offered the people only three choices—mandated government neutrality toward religion, which is what Newdow is trying to enforce, “ceremonial deism”, which means the Justices do not believe references to God matter thus insulting both sides, and endorsement of monotheism, which is Justice Scalia’s position. The latter seems totally inconsistent with the constitutional prohibition against establishment of religion.
As we become more secular, these faulty formulations promise more, and more bitter, confrontation, until the secularists win, years in the future. But what will they have won? So help me God will then be replaced with a dreary materialism. It will be so help me malls.
What we need is a new understanding of what these religious formulations can mean. Not what they are meant to mean, but what they are capable of. The word God has a rich history going far beyond Scalia’s narrow monotheism. Just for example, what if the word God in the inauguration implies that history has a normative shape that we must seek to emulate—Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “arc of the moral universe”. Not only might Newdow agree that there is such a reality, he would certainly agree that it is not unconstitutional for government to assert it. Believers would agree that even non-believers should be able to see this. Thus, the beginning of the end of the culture wars.
This is what my book, For the Establishment of Religion, argues the courts should do. The courts should find an inclusive and meaningful reinterpretation of these religious symbols. By simply showing this inclusiveness, the courts would be creating inclusiveness.