Wednesday, September 18, 2013


"In Massachusetts, an atheist challenge to the "under God" phrase in the Pledge of Allegiance is winding its way through the courts, to be decided in coming months by the Supreme Judicial Court."

So begins a recent op-ed by James Carroll in the Boston Globe. Carroll is a regular Globe columnist, a prolific writer of fiction and nonfiction, a former Roman Catholic priest, and "Catholic dissident," whom I much admire. Before I get to his take on the Pledge issue, let me add a few words of my own.

The "under God" thing is a tempest in a teapot. Religious fundamentalists are always trying to squeeze us all into their particular theistic pot, and non-believers protest being crammed down the spout. As you might expect, I have no fondness for God-talk in our public institutions, but there are bigger battles to be fought than this one. I always thought the Pledge was rather silly anyway. What does it mean to "pledge allegiance" to a flag or "the republic for which it stands"? Does it bar dissent from national policy? Does it make flag burning a crime? Let us hope not. I'm a proud and loyal American under God or without him. Reciting some rote pledge is simply irrelevant.

Carroll essentially agrees, but he uses the Pledge issue to talk about the recently departed Ronald Dworkin's just-published book Religion Without God. Dworkin, a prominent professor of law at New York University, argues that religion is deeper than God:
Religion is a deep, distinct, and comprehensive worldview: It holds that inherent, objective value permeates everything, that the universe and its creatures are awe-inspiring, that human life has purpose and the universe order. A belief in god is only one possible manifestation or consequence of that worldview.
I will deconstruct this definition tomorrow, Carroll seems to take it at face value, and agrees with Dworkin that the God of the fundamentalist (and the Pledge) reduces religion to a kind of petty idolatry. He quotes Paul Tillich to the effect that the literalism of most God-talk "deprives God of his ultimacy."

This, of course, is what I was getting at in When God Is Gone, Everything Is Holy. The God of the Pledge, that stick man, that chief honcho who lives up there in Heaven and whom we live "under" (not in), is not someone to whom I would surrender my allegiance, but neither is he someone who I would make a big fuss about.