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Spirituality: In whom do we trust?
by Father Michael Savelesky, for the Inland Register
(From the Aug. 1, 2002 edition of the Inland Register)
Several weeks have passed now since the judge in the 9th district federal court made the shocking ruling that the use of the words “under God” in our nation’s Pledge of Allegiance were unconstitutional. Coming in the lazy days of summer, the announcement caught us off guard and smacked the public with a sense of surrealism. Perhaps real life doesn’t shut down while we vacation; we just get distracted. The wheels of the justice system continue to turn slowly, even in the summer.
Although this unexpected ruling has been held up for review, the reaction around our nation was fascinating to watch. The steps of Congress were packed with legislators who, with special gusto, harmoniously chimed in the recitation of the Pledge while cameras hummed. Television newscasts featured scores of innocent children engaged in a similar display of patriotism, with the obviously coached emphasis on “under God.” Commentators and pundits had a field day.
Many an American bristled at this decision, feeling a bit challenged – if not insulted – that something so dear to our hearts was being threatened. The words “under God” slide from our lips with the greatest of ease, much like the trapeze artist who presumes that there will indeed be a bar “out there” to grab when the time comes. It’s just the way reality is put together, we may want to argue. Federal judge be damned, we are indeed “under God”!
A good number of us can remember when “under God” was inserted into the Pledge of Allegiance – and how we pounced on the phrase – especially in a public school setting – as an act of defiance against the Godless world of the communists. After all, we were under God and they were not! And time has shown who was correct, right?
Ever since the first decades of our nation’s history, we, the citizens of this great land, have claimed a special superiority over other nations. We seeing have always presumed that God is on our side. The great push westward (and even upward to the stars) was proof enough of that. From puritanical claims of righteousness to the great Oregon Trail migrations of the 1840s; from victory in the Civil War (by the North, anyway) to supremacy in the Cold War, it seems that our nation truly has marched under God’s banner.
The possibility that God’s favor and protection - or at least the words that champion it - could be removed from public proclamation left us more than a bit aghast. Our cries of “Foul!” have echoed from sea to shining sea!
Some writers and commentators have observed that God is etched into our nation’s history. Consider the words “In God We Trust,” which appear so boldly on the coins and currency of our nation. These words, which reflect the perspective of the writers of the United States Constitution, have not changed in appearance over the years, but they have changed in meaning. The “God” of our Founding Fathers largely was a God championed by the Masonic Lodge and many governments in northern Europe at the time. This “God” was not the One referenced in the Lord’s Prayer, but the God portrayed by the theology of the Deists. Deism is a heresy (long since condemned by the Church) which eats away subtly and sometimes not-so-subtly at the substance of Christian spirituality. The God of the Deists – who is the God who is the object in the phrase “In God We Trust” – is a very impersonal Creator – God who merely created a very complex universe and who for all practical purposes abandoned it to follow its so-called Laws of Nature. The prevailing image used in the Middle Ages to argue for this notion of God was that of an extremely complicated clock. According to this teaching, God’s only involvement in human affairs was to mastermind the clock and wind it up. We human beings need merely to trust that God knew what he was doing and now must go about our own independent business.
Few of us think of this kind of God when we glance at our currency or even announce proudly that we are “under God.” Our Christian faith assuredly has given us a different perspective of God. Yet, if we are not attentive, we can still buy into the God of the deists, presuming that predestination has set our ways and our direction, even as a nation. Accordingly, we can be lulled into thinking that all we do – and stand for – is somehow divinely blessed.
For the sake of personal integrity – and even for the welfare of the nation, it could be argued – we followers of Jesus of Nazareth must realized that we trust in a far different God than the one etched in our coins and stamped on our currency. We believe in a God different from the one who is imagined to look benignly on our nation (and presumably not on others), blessing us in lavish generosity.
Every political group and nation seems to claim a special relationship with God (or the gods). Yet God is on the side of any human effort that strives for moral goodness or promotes the dignity of human life and whatever enriches it – regardless of national borders.
As we Christians reflect on the many references Jesus makes to God in the Gospels, what would he have to say about our patriotically inspired picture of the God in whom we place our trust? Are his image of his heavenly Father’s Kingdom and our nation’s God one and the same? The “Father” who is so much at the heart of Jesus’ sense of God’s Kingdom is not one who blesses and favors the few but the One who is personally present to the many (that is, everyone). The One addressed intimately by Jesus as “Abba” – calls his own to a community of love and service which knows no national boundaries and is not limited by cultural differences. The God of Jesus is far more a God of mystery, and less one of the surety and certainty. He is a God of constant journeying and purification, and less one of self-righteousness. He is a God who embraces the weak and the sinful and less one who champions power and domination. He is a God whose saving and loving presence is discovered in attentive prayer and less in the championing of causes. He is a God who is sovereign over all the Caesars of the earth, regardless of coinage and currency.
If this is the God in whom we trust, then our daily lives will be a visible pledge of allegiance. And so, too, will be the laws and projects of our nation. If we truly trust in this God, we constantly will seek a deeper personal relationship in prayer.
If this is the God in whom we trust, them we will recognize our partnership with any and all human beings who work for freedom, truth and justice.
(Father Savelesky is pastor of Assumption Parish, Spokane. Harcourt Religion Publishers has issued his book Catholics Believe.) (Download order form in pdf format)
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