APRIL 29, 2004
Taking God's Name in Vain
James L. Evans
After a long legal journey, the Supreme Court has finally heard Elk Grove Unified School District v. Newdow, better known as the "Under God" case. A decision is expected later this spring.
The particulars are well known: avowed atheist Michael Newdow sued the Elk Grove School district because he didn't want his nine year-old daughter saying the words under God in the pledge of allegiance.
When the case reached the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in June 2002, a three judge panel ruled in favor of Newdow. Maintaining that the words violated the constitutional mandate for a separation of religion and government, the court ordered that schools in California and eight other Western states cease using the words under God in the pledge. This set off an avalanche of protests around the country and generated a flurry of legislative initiatives aimed at overturning or by-passing the decision.
The Supreme Court has an opportunity to settle the matter, but it will be a tough call either way. If they uphold the findings of the lower court, we can expect a wave of anti-court sentiment to sweep the country. According to recent polls, over 80 percent of the American people favor the inclusion of the words under God in the pledge. It will take judicial backbone to rule against that kind of majority.
Of course, there is a chance the court will simply punt on the issue. It turns out that Newdow shares custody with the girl's mother who is raising her as a Christian. The high court could seize on this fact and rule that Newdow does not have a basis to file suit, which would end the case without settling the matter.
Be that as it may, overturning the Ninth Circuit and allowing the pledge to stand as is will please a large majority of Americans. In order to reach this decision, the court will have to decide that the words under God do not constitute a religious affirmation. They must determine that the reference is innocuous, without theological meaning, and functioning solely as a sort of ceremonial deism.
If ceremonial deism becomes the rationale for leaving the words "under God" in the pledge, I am at a loss to understand how anyone will view such a ruling as a victory for the faith. As if to say, sure, leave the words in there, they are so devoid of meaning that saying them in the ritual repetition of the pledge doesn't mean anything.
Shouldn't people of faith be concerned that such a decision will diminish the meaning of God's name by rendering it legally irrelevant? Doesn't that come dangerously close to taking God's name in vain?
James L. Evans is pastor of Crosscreek Baptist Church in Pelham, AL. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.