America—a constitutional theocracy

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The Queen opens parliament.
  • The Queen opens parliament.
Major League Baseball’s response to 9/11 was to add the singing of “God Bless America” to the seventh-inning stretch. Eleven years later the Irving Berlin song continues to be sung and I can't be the only person who thinks the ritual long ago wore out its welcome. But it would take a brave baseball executive to decree, enough. Once God is invoked there’s no turning back.

In 1954 Congress formally amended the Pledge of Allegiance to include the phrase “under God.” Said President Eisenhower, on signing the bill into law, “We are reaffirming the transcendence of religious faith in America's heritage and future.”

No particular faith, mind you, though there are clear favorites. But that’s progress. A third of the way through the 19th century, De Tocqueville, describing America, observed that no particular Christian faith enjoyed the upper hand.

“The sects that exist in the United States are innumerable,” he wrote in Democracy in America. “They all differ in respect to the worship which is due to the Creator; but they all agree in respect to the duties which are due from man to man. Each sect adores the Deity in its own peculiar manner, but all sects preach the same moral law in the name of God. If it be of the highest importance to man, as an individual, that his religion should be true, it is not so to society. Society has no future life to hope for or to fear; and provided the citizens profess a religion, the peculiar tenets of that religion are of little importance to its interests. Moreover, all the sects of the United States are comprised within the great unity of Christianity, and Christian morality is everywhere the same.”

De Tocqueville has much more to say about religion than that, and leafing through Democracy in America one afternoon I got the impression that his idea of its place in America is analogous to the place of the monarchy in Britain.

A very smart essay I read long ago (I wish I could tell you who wrote it) observed that the British monarchy’s great importance lies not in the powers it holds, for these are trivial, but in the powers it denies. By virtue of its standing as head of state and head of the state church, the monarchy cuts everyone else down to human size. No prime minister or man on horseback can present himself as the symbol of state because that is who the queen is and what she does. A prime minister merely heads a party, and when the party’s time is done out the prime minister goes, even if he’s as closely identified with the nation as Churchill was during World War II.

What we have in the United States is a constitutional theocracy. The president is formally the head of state, but no president would dare place himself beyond God’s jurisdiction. “Let us go forth to lead the land we love, asking His blessing and His help,” said President Kennedy, concluding his inaugural address, “but knowing that here on earth God's work must truly be our own.” But JFK didn’t present a vision of God’s agenda that anyone’s God would have been likely to repudiate.

Like the British queen, the American God doesn’t say much. There’s no shortage of noisy clergy more than happy to claim they’re speaking on God’s behalf, but they can’t overstate their case or they’ll lose their audience. A few hint at personal divinity, but although some Americans are always willing to believe such things of any new and charismatic personality who talks a good game, many more reject him at once as a crackpot. God keeps us sensibly conservative: better the deity we know than traipsing after a new one we don’t.

No self-declared atheist can be elected president, but why is that? Is it simply the lack of faith? Or is it what I think it is, the lack of deference to anything greater than himself? If a president doesn’t recognize the primacy of God, what is there to hold him back? A president who doesn’t believe in God may not believe in sin, a frightening thought.

Last week’s presidential election was instructional and reassuring. Catholic priests and bishops hinted broadly from their pulpits that the flock should cast their votes against the Democrat. Arguments against gay rights and abortion rights were framed in terms of sacred verities. These hints and arguments largely fell flat. Until God Himself speaks we simply do not know what He thinks, and if we did we might want to set Him straight. There’s reason to suspect that what God thinks is as susceptible to public sentiment as the Queen’s annual speech opening Parliament is to the views of the political party that writes it. This proposition is neither antiroyalist nor unpious; it simply acknowledges that devotion is trending away from subjugation.

Life under a God we all feel pretty good about keeps people from looking for trouble. “Thou shalt have no other gods before me,” says the first of the Ten Commandments. Only a fool would break it. It keeps us sane and keeps us free.

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