By Greta Christina | 14 September 2012
“In God We Trust” on the money. “Under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance. Creches and crosses on public land. Religious mottos on public buildings. Prayers starting public government meetings. Prayers in the public schools. If you didn’t know better, you’d think the religious right was right, and the United States really was a Christian nation.
Of course it’s not. The United States is a secular nation. The principle that citizens have the right to reach their own conclusions about religion, and that government should stay out of that choice, is deeply enshrined in the foundation of our government, in the First Amendment and elsewhere. This separation of state and church was not accidental or an oversight — it was written into the Constitution by careful, conscious choice, made against significant pushback. And the country has citizens who are Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, Wiccan, “spiritual but not religious,” many other religions — plus, of course, citizens without any religion at all.
Yet what often gets called “ceremonial deism” is all over our government. Now, when this “ceremonial deism” get challenged in court, it typically gets defended — and is often even upheld by judges — on the grounds that it isn’t really religious. In court, its defenders argue that all this God talk is obviously just tradition, without any actual religious meaning. (How could you silly people think that “God” means something religious?) But when you look at the ideas and motivations driving this “ceremonial deism,” it becomes clear that it’s anything but secular. Passionate religious belief is driving every one of these battles. It wouldn’t be defended so fiercely if real religious fervor weren’t behind it. And every one of these “ceremonial” incursions of religion into government gets used — on the ground, in tangible, real-world ways — to marginalize non-believers, and to treat them as second-class citizens.
Here are four ways the concept of God gets into government — and pushes atheist citizens to the sidelines.
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