Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Invoking God in Public

David T. Koyzis


January 21, 2011
?by David T. Koyzis

Nearly half a century ago the Supreme Court handed down two back-to-back decisions that would infuriate many Americans who were attached to the old de facto protestant establishment in public life. In the first ruling, Engel v Vitale (1962), the high court ruled that the bland, nondenominational prayer authorized for use in the public schools by the New York Board of Regents violated the no-establishment clause of the First Amendment to the US Constitution. The following year in a similar case, Abington School District v Schempp (1963), the court found that a requirement by Pennsylvania school authorities requiring Bible reading followed by recitation of the Lord’s Prayer violated both the free-exercise and no-establishment clauses of that amendment.

Since then the place of traditional religion in the public square has been a contentious one, with Americans lining up on both sides, certain of the truth of their respective arguments. Much of the impetus behind such groups as the Moral Majority and Christian Coalition stemmed from the popular conviction that the judiciary had banned God from public life.

G. K. Chesterton famously observed that America is “a nation with the soul of a church,” which is borne out in at least three phenomena. First, American coins bear the motto “In God We Trust.” Second, in 1954 the Knights of Columbus and others successfully campaigned to add the phrase “Under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance to the Flag. And, third, after the 9/11 attacks, Irving Berlin’s God Bless America was heard everywhere. It is difficult to imagine an America stripped of its thriving churches and its civil religious veneer. However, four things should be kept in mind concerning the place of Christianity in American public life.

First, although popular piety might suggest otherwise, the United States does not stand in a covenant relationship with God; that status is reserved for the body of Christ, the church. As the Apostle Peter affirms with regard to the church, “you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light” (1 Peter 2:9). America is not the church. The church is a global community including all who are in Christ, whatever their language, culture or citizenship. God in Christ has acted to save, not America, but those in every country whom he has chosen as his own.

Second, a vaguely theistic civil religion should not be confused with biblical faith. It is by no means clear that the “God” who appears on our coinage is the same God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob who uniquely revealed himself in Jesus Christ. The New York Board of Regents prayer would not have passed liturgical muster in a robustly Trinitarian denomination.

Third, the state’s task of doing justice requires that it treat all religious beliefs, including those misleadingly styled “nonreligious,” equitably. According to the Center for Public Justice’s Guidelines for Government and Citizenship, “government does not have the authority to define true religion and thus must protect the religious freedom of all citizens.” This rules out any official church establishment, as already indicated in the First Amendment. At the same time, however, it means that an official establishment of secularism is also excluded, and banning prayer in schools would seem to imply such a secular establishment.

Fourth and finally, if government is obligated to protect the religious freedom of its residents and to refrain from declaring the truth of one religion above others, it nevertheless cannot be neutral with respect to its own religious underpinnings. What people believe about the relationship between God and his image-bearing creatures necessarily has a bearing on how a community approaches public life. Because it impacts the policy process at a basic level, no government can credibly claim neutrality on this score.

This is where we Christians must join with our fellow citizens to deliberate on the weighty matters of public policy. We may not win the day completely, but if our efforts are rooted in a solid grasp of God’s truth, whose fruits are available to all through his common grace, we may in his good timing, and with the co-operation of others, help to set the direction of our political communities towards doing public justice.

—David T. Koyzis is an American citizen teaching politics at Redeemer University College in Canada. He is the author of Political Visions and Illusions (2003).

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”