July 8, 2002
The True, the False, and the Useful
-- Martin E. Marty
Eighteenth-century historian Edward Gibbon wrote of the Antonines' Rome: "The various modes of worship which prevailed in the Roman world were all considered by the people as equally true; by the philosopher as equally false; and by the magistrate as equally useful. And thus toleration produced not only mutual indulgence, but even religious concord." (Edward Gibbon, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, 3 vols., (New York: The Modern Library, 1995), 1:22.)
I thought of that after "sighting" smoke signals from both coasts that reached us during a ten-day island retreat. From San Francisco came the signal that the Ninth Circuit court ruled against compulsory recitation of the "under God" phrase in the Pledge of Allegiance. The Washington news told us that the U.S. Supreme Court ruled favorably for parents who might use vouchers for children to attend non-public schools, be these religious or not.
As for the first: it will take nine Supreme Court justices nine minutes to say "Nein!" to the ruling on "under God." Technically the Ninth Circuit majority of two may have a point. If you are non- or anti- or other-religious, having to pledge or pray "under God" looks like establishment. But in Gibbons phrase, the public has a way of considering the religions of "under God" equally true, or generally harmless. As for Gibbons' second phrase: many philosophers find the religions, including American civil religion, equally false, and most will not make a point of taking on a public so given to the phrase. Huge majorities indicate that they want to retrain the phrase.
That leaves, third, the politicians. Many of them find the religions subsumed in the phrase "under God" to be equally useful. They hurried to chambers of Congress and the Capitol steps to be photographed "parading their piety before men" (Matthew 6), siding with "the people" and venting rage on a court and on the presumed set of secular humanists that does not find religions useful.
The vouchers issue deserves to be taken more seriously, and there is much to be said on the several sides of it. Once upon a time many of "the people" who were not Catholic opposed the system because Catholics might benefit. Today schools of conservative evangelicals and the political Christian right are the objects of suspicion. We expect that where vouchers are put to work -- the system is complex -- the controversy to watch will not be over which religion will benefit, but rather over the benefits vouchers bring to the poor or mainly compared to the lift they give the religiously-committed middle class. At present the funds acquired through vouchers are not large enough for the inner city's poor to make use of them. The issues surrounding vouchers are substantive and worth arguing about. Are they "useful" to the "magistrates" in our times when "mutual indulgence" is being tested? We'll see.