U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia believes that nothing in the Constitution prevents the government from endorsing and promoting religion – as long as it’s not too specific.
Addressing a crowd at a Catholic high school in Louisiana last month, Scalia asserted that the Constitution does not require the government to be neutral between religion and non-religion.
“To tell you the truth, there is no place for that in our constitutional tradition,” Scalia opined. “Where did that come from? To be sure, you can’t favor one denomination over another but can’t favor religion over non-religion?”
Scalia added that there is “nothing wrong” with ceremonial endorsements of religion by government officials. He asserted that our nation must honor God because God has treated the United States well.
“God has been very good to us,” Scalia remarked. “That we won the revolution was extraordinary. The Battle of Midway was extraordinary. I think one of the reasons God has been good to us is that we have done him honor. Unlike the other countries of the world that do not even invoke his name, we do him honor. In presidential addresses, in Thanksgiving proclamations and in many other ways. There is nothing wrong with that, and do not let anybody tell you that there is anything wrong with that.” He expressed concern that the courts were trying to “cram” secularism “down the throats of an American people.”
For all of his talk about the Constitution, Scalia’s speech lacked one thing: quotes from passages in that document that would support his view. He was unable to quote them because there aren’t any.
The Constitution is a secular document. It does not appeal to any deity and, despite what many Americans may believe, it fails to single out Christianity for special treatment.
The ceremonial references that Scalia so prizes are mostly of recent vintage. The United States lacked an official motto during most of its existence, although E Pluribus Unum (“Out of Many, One”) served that function unofficially. In the 1950s, Congress got the bright idea to create an official motto and settled on “In God We Trust” as a slap at the “godless communists” who then ruled our arch-nemesis the Soviet Union.
It was around the same time that the words “under God” were slipped into the Pledge of Allegiance. The original pledge, as drafted by Francis Bellamy (who, by the way, was a socialist!) in 1892, didn’t contain the phrase.
Courts haven’t taken challenges to these practices very seriously. They tend to label them examples of “civil religion” or “ceremonial deism” and let it go at that. The thinking seems to be that yes, we’re not allowed to establish any religion by law – unless it’s a pseudo-faith that no one takes too seriously and is watered down to the point that almost no one is offended.
Perhaps that made some sense in 1956. It makes none in 2016. Plenty of people these days are offended by civil religion – and they’re not all non-believers. Believers who yearn for an authentic faith know why a one-size-fits-all god who can be downsized so as to fit on a nickel isn’t worthy of anyone’s worship.
The empty rituals and formulaic expressions of piety found in a mayor’s official prayer day proclamation apparently mean a lot to Scalia. They are, he argues, a way of honoring God, and in turn this Supreme Being, pleased at our city hall supplications, will bestow a benevolent hand of protection upon our nation.
The theology is shaky at best – some would argue a bit childish. Regardless, Scalia’s generic, government-approved god is not something the founders conceived of. It is a much later invention. The irony is that Scalia, who insists that he is a constitutional “originalist” who sees nothing in the document beyond its words on parchment, has grafted this imaginary concept onto our founding charter.
Scalia was appointed to the bench by President Ronald W. Reagan in 1986. He is the longest-serving justice on the current court. For many years, he was perpetually writing dissents when it came to church-state cases. Just one year after joining the high court, for example, Scalia angrily denounced a ruling striking down a Louisiana law requiring “balanced treatment” between evolution and creationism in the state’s public schools.
Back then, Scalia could find only one other justice, William H. Rehnquist, to agree with him. These days, sadly, Scalia has more allies on the court and is often joining majority opinions, not penning dissents.
Although he looks vigorous and is just as sarcastic as ever during high court oral arguments, Scalia is not likely to put in another 10 years on the job. Scalia, along with several other justices, is approaching or past 80. The eventual retirement of these justices will shift the court in a profound way. The man or woman sitting in the White House will determine the direction of that shift.
If the shift is toward what the founders intended, secular government and state neutrality on matters of theology, the day may come when our nation’s highest court finally acknowledges that government endorsement of generic, watered-down religiosity honors neither church nor state and consigns it to the dustbin of history.