Thursday, November 3, 2011

"Ceremonial Deism"


On Tuesday this week, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a measure reaffirming the national motto, “In God We Trust.”  Some have scratched their heads about this, since the motto had already been reaffirmed in 2002 (it was made the official motto of the country in 1956). 
As expected, numerous secularists decried the action as being a violation of the Establishment Clause in the First Amendment of the Constitution (“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion”).  This claim has already been rejected in numerous lawsuits either seeking to overturn the national motto or to rid “under God” from the pledge of allegiance.  Earlier this year, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to even hear a case challenging the printing of “In God We Trust” on the nation’s coins and currency. 
As I was reading about it this week, one detail jumped out at me.  The typical way the courts reject these challenges is to identify the national motto and the reference to God in the pledge as “ceremonial deism.”  Ceremonial deism is a legal term used to refer to nominally religious statements that are merely ritual and non-religious due to long usage.  In other words, the phrases “have lost through rote repetition any significant religious content.”[1]  For this reason, the courts maintain, the phrases do not violate the Establishment Clause.
The reason this caught my eye is because just this week in our Wednesday night series on worldviews, we studied deism.  The irony in using the phrase “ceremonial deism” to describe the use of “In God We Trust” as our national motto is that a consistent deist would never affirm the motto in the first place!
The God of deism is perceived to be nothing more than a First Cause.  According to the deist, the world is like a magnificent clock.  It is ordered perfectly and works in absolute precision – just like clockwork.  But to have a universe so well ordered, there must have been a clock maker.  This is the God of deism.  He created the universe as a uniformity of cause and effect, and walked away.  He has had nothing to do with the creation since creating it.  He does not love the creation or have any kind of a relationship with it.  The universe is now a closed system that cannot be acted upon from the outside.
So a deist who is being consistent would never trust this God.  It would be irrational to do so, since the God of deism is not sovereign over the creation and does not act providentially within it.  The deist cannot even trust in himself since everything that happens is the result of a closed system of cause and effect.  Everything that has ever happened and ever will happen was determined at the moment of creation.  Neither God nor man can change the course of history.  The universe is nothing but one big machine.
If the national motto is “In God We Trust,” it can’t be the deistic God.  As we will see in the course of our worldview series, the only God who can be trusted is the God of Scripture. 
Although “ceremonial deism” is not a good descriptor of our national motto, it does accurately reflect the spiritual climate in our country.  At its core, deism is an attempt to rid man of responsibility to God, yet without completely doing away with the idea of God.  That has been the course of America for decades now.  That the legislators of a nation as secularized as ours would vote overwhelmingly to affirm “In God We Trust” proves the point.  We don’t want God’s moral absolutes, but we are not quite ready to remove Him altogether.  This underscores the fact that referring to America as a“Christian nation” is a misnomer.  Though the majority of American’s may identify themselves as Christians, the popular conception of God is the God of deism, a god who cannot save. 
What will it take to change this?  It will take the church living faithfully in the midst of a lost world and a brand of revival that can only be created by the Holy Spirit.  In other words, more than a simple act of Congress.

[1]Justice Brennan’s dissenting opinion in Lynch v. Donnelly, 465 U.S. 668 (1984).
Posted by Greg Birdwell
 

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