Sunday, September 17, 2017

In (God) (We) Trust

Recently the Lieutenant Governor of Arkansas, in response to a potential lawsuit from a group of atheists, posted signs reading In God we trust in public school classrooms.

Because of course the logical thing to do when atheists challenge the law is to inflict more ideology on children. Right?

But more seriously, a few theological points are in order. First, we defend the free exercise of religion in our nation. So it's just fine if people want to put the word God lots of different places, and use it freely, as long as such practice does not impinge on the rights of others to exercise their religion.

Things get a little more tricky when you compare the two parts of the Free Exercise Clause. Because what it does is prohibit the congress from making laws establishing a religion, and then defends the free exercise of religion among the citizenry. Those are two different forms of free exercise that sometimes get conflated.

The state should not establish religion. It should defends its free exercise.

If the lieutenant governor of a state puts up signs in public schools that read, "In God we trust," that in fact does appear to establish a religion of sorts, but at about the same level as the language on our currency. The dollar bill in my pocket reads, "In God we trust." That's an odd and rather new thing for our currency to say. It's our official national motto, adopted in 1956, replacing "E puribus unum."

Since I like Latin, I guess I prefer the old motto. But I also can't blame the lieutenant governor for defending the use of the national motto, even if I might quibble with his claim that it is part of our "history and heritage."

But all of this does beg the question. What "God" do we trust? And who are "we"?

Martin Luther famously stated in the Large Catechism, "That upon which you set your heart and put your trust is properly your god." If we take this as true, then our national motto is basically a tautology. It's a statement that is true by necessity or by virtue of its logical form.

In one sense, it is actually like saying nothing at all, like say "we trust in that which we trust." Or, it's like just putting the name alone up there at the top of the currency, "GOD."

Which of course is also true. One of those things upon which we set our heart and put our trust is money.

But when somebody says, "In God we trust," when a community says it, they mean something by it, even if the Supreme Court has concluded that the statement on official documents is essentially devoid of religious content (something they have to claim because otherwise the government's use of such motto would ipso facto be a violation of the Free Exercise Clause). 

What people actually mean by the phrase is something more gestural. They mean, "We are patriots." They mean, "We historically have been religious." They mean, "We feel good about the us that such a religious sentiment devoid of religious content implies."

And they defend the use of it not because of God, but because of that other word, "We." The use of "God" in the sentence defines more narrowly the "we" that is "us." It's a way of subtly stating, "We are the people, but not all of the people are the people." It's a way of violating the beating heart of E pluribus unum, modifying it ever so slightly but just the more drastically for all that, because it becomes, "Out of the many, excluding a few, one." 

As a Christian, I have no doubt some who use the word "God" really have a specific deity in mind when they say it, but the use of it by our nation in these contexts, though interesting and in fact full of meaning, is in the end not the god in which I place my trust. 

The Christian God is another God, and far more tremendous. The God of Israel. The Father of Jesus. The living Spirit. The Name, Hashem. I Am Who I Am. 

The God I know is not easily collapsed into a general deity recognizable by other traditions.

Yet the God I know, in their very Trinitarian specificity, leaves me quite open to and respectful of the God others know by other names, or no name at all. 

Somehow, strangely, the specific God I've met in Christ makes me far more comfortable with atheists than those who defend national deism. And oddly resistant to general deism when it's inflicted on (my/our) children.

I trust this God enough to not worry overly much about demanding where the Name is printed or posted, and love that God enough to attempt defending the right of my neighbor to not name that God at all.

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