Skip to site content

Bad Theology Makes Bad Law

The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals made a fatal blunder in its inflammatory decision regarding the Pledge of Allegiance. Under the guise of striking all religious references from the language of our republic, it proceeded to base this decision on theology, and very faulty theology at that.

Writing for the majority, Justice Alfred Goodwin declared, “A profession that we are a nation ‘under God’ is identical, for Establishment Clause purposes, to a profession that we are a nation ‘under Jesus,’ a nation ‘under Vishnu,’ a nation ‘under Zeus,’ or a nation ‘under no god,’ because none of these professions can be neutral with respect to religion.”

I beg to differ. “Under God” is generic religious language. And from my limited understanding of constitutional law, that is precisely why such language has survived legal challenges in the past. Ironically, it is only because the words “under God” amount to what one Supreme Court justice called “ceremonial deism” that the language passes constitutional muster.

By contrast, the Bible is intent on revealing the unique character of God. In the Hebrew of the Old Testament, “El” is the generic name for God; in the Greek of the New Testament, “Theos” is the general word for God. But the divine revelation moves beyond such generalities to profoundly personal language.

Thus, God promises Abraham, “I am God Almighty“—that is, El Shaddai (Gen 17:1). Hagar names God El Roi, meaning “The God who sees me” (Gen 16:13). God tells Moses, “I am who I am”—the name Yahweh (Ex 3:13). Jesus’ preferred name for God was Abba, meaning “father” or more accurately, “daddy.” And the greatest revolution of all was the Christian confession “Jesus is Lord,” meaning God is the One drawing near in Jesus.
Sorry, judge, but saying “under Jesus” and “under Vishnu” mean roughly the same thing is patently untrue. Ask Jesus’ people to describe their God; then ask Vishnu’s folks to do the same. It’s not the same picture.

Ceremonial religious language has its place in the conduct of our republic. The vast majority of Americans believe a Supreme Being has blessed and guided this nation. Striking “under God” from the Pledge won’t change that reality; it will just pretend it doesn’t exist.

On the other hand, we should not take such language to mean we’re all talking about the same God. We’re not. So rather than merely railing at the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, perhaps Christians should seize this opportunity to turn to their neighbors and say, “When you say, ‘One nation under God,’ what God do you mean?” Then after listening honestly and respectively, turn to them and say, “Might I tell you about Jesus?”

After all, the hope of the world is not generic religious language. The hope of the world is Jesus Christ.

Bob Setzer Jr. is pastor of First Baptist Church in Macon, Ga.

Buy Bob’s book, Encounters with the Living Christ, from Amazon.com now!