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First Amendment Advocate, Vol. 3, No. 1, February 2002

The Newsletter of the Oklahoma Chapter of Americans United


Civil Religion Burgeoning in Public Square after Terror Attacks


By Mark O’Keefe


Since Sept. 11, routine acts such as waving the flag, pledging “one nation under God” and proclaiming the words “God bless America” have taken on almost worshipful significance. 


But what some Americans find unifying and reassuring, others see as divisive and troubling, a blurring of the line between love of country and religion, with woe to those who don’t believe.


Derek Davis, director of the J.M. Dawson Institute of Church-State Studies at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, sees the wall between church and state being temporarily lowered.  “At times like this, you almost set aside the First Amendment,” said Davis, who serves as special counsel for the Baptist Joint Committee.  “The excitement and emotion almost trump everything else.” 


The fervor that makes patriotism an almost sacred duty goes by a variety of academic

labels — civil religion, public religion, even democratic faith.  Some scholars distinguish it from authentic spirituality.


“Patriotism sort of becomes a secular religion,” said Pauline Maier, author of  American Scripture: Making the Declaration of Independence.


But others see real religion fusing with civic duty, producing a love of God and country that can’t be divided or denied — especially when the nation is at war.

“In World War II, God was on our side,” said W. Bruce Johnston, chair of the religious studies at the College of Saint Rose in Albany, NY.  “Just think of the songs like ‘I’ll be Home for Christmas.”  Here you have this religious holiday and there’s this great big patriotic war song.”  Johnston continued, “Then there’s the Civil War.  Abraham Lincoln basically tells the North this is a just cause because God is on our side.  It’s safe to say that wartime is a very good occasion for this type of thing to happen.”


Jean Bethke Elshtain, professor of social and political ethics at the University of Chicago’s Divinity School, was among religious leaders who met with President Bush before his Sept. 20 speech to Congress.  Elshtain said she and others were deeply moved when, after praying with Bush, the group spontaneously sang “God Bless America” — just as members of Congress had on the steps of the Capitol after the Sept. 11 attacks.


“Expressions such as ‘God bless America’ shouldn’t offend anyone, except atheists or perhaps some New Age people who don’t like God,” Elshtain  said.  “There’s nothing specific about Christianity, Judaism or Islam in that.  God is the term people use to describe a power beyond human beings.”


Historically, the United States has been one of the world’s most religious nations.  In a May Gallup Poll, 90% of respondents said they believed in God, 7% were not sure, 2% did not believe and only 1% had no opinion.


But Tom Flynn, a spokesman for the Council for Secular Humanism in Amherst, N.Y., cautioned against shutting out the nonreligious.  “We have blood to donate, money to contribute, and emotional, if never spiritual, support to offer,” Flynn said in a news release after Sept. 11.  “If the war is unavoidable, we will do our part.  If you insist on freezing us out of your grief work, we’ll understand.  But the next time the call goes out  for ‘all hands on deck,’ forgive us if we assume you’re talking to somebody else.”


In battles over public expressions of religious sentiment, the believing and non-believing camps can generate passions of similar intensity.


After the attacks, a secretary in Rocklin, Calif., put the words “God Bless America” on a marquee at Breen Elementary School prompting a national controversy.


A California chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union sent a letter to the school calling the sign unconstitutional, “hurtful,” “divisive” and an affront to children of minority faiths.  The school, with public support, defied the ACLU, which appears to be backing down.


In a similar case in Broken Arrow, Okla. parent’s complaints about “God Bless America” on a school sign resulted in temporary removal of “God” leaving just “Bless America.”  The Daily Oklahoman newspaper, outraged, labeled the complainers “cranks who never suspend their rabid secular fundamentalism.”


The incidents helped prompt the House of Representatives to vote 404-0 for a resolution urging public schools to display “God Bless America” in a gesture of national support.


The national ACLU, normally outspoken on such matters, would not comment, except to call the California case a local decision.


Marc Stern, a constitutional attorney for the New York based American Jewish Congress and an ACLU ally, said that groups defending the separation of church and state see the current climate as no-win and are taking a lower profile.  “Constitutional rights and privileges are a precious coin,” Stern said.  “You don’t expend that coin in ways that are going to be futile, with relatively little at stake, as is the case here, or when the motive for doing so will be mistaken and converted into something else.”


In general, courts have ruled that some seemingly religious expressions of government, such as the national motto, “One nation under God,” and the words “In God We Trust” on currency, are in reality “ceremonial deism.”  The expressions have been seen as devoid of significant religious meaning because of their rote repetition.


“We should all give each other some breathing space for a time and not overreact,” advised Charles Haynes, a senior scholar at the Freedom Forum First Amendment Center.  “On one side, people should realize that this outpouring of patriotism and concern is understandable and you shouldn’t fight everything you don’t like.”


“On the other side, I’m suggesting that people who want to put ‘God Bless America’ everywhere, that our public schools are places that are quite diverse.  We have people of many faiths and no faith and they shouldn’t use this as an opportunity to impose something that in ordinary times they wouldn’t be able to do.”


Haynes said, “there isn’t a judge in the land that would strike down” a temporary ‘God Bless America” sign.  But, if a district used the phrase as “a long-term expression” required in its schools, “that may be unconstitutional.”


Whatever the national mood, expressions such as these alarm American Atheists Inc., a national group based in Parsippany, N.J. 


“We shouldn’t throw out the First Amendment separation of church and state just to try to rally the nation,” said Ellen Johnson, the group’s president.  “If we overlook our constitutional protections, we become like the Islamist fundamentalists who want to create the ultimate ‘one nation under God.’”


Re-printed by permission of the Religion News Service.



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