The Political Meaning of ‘God’ May 12, 2011
I have never been a great advocate of ‘prayer in public schools’ except for voluntary Bible clubs and things of that sort. I was, in fact, going to a public school in 1962, when the decision was handed down, and there was nothing we were doing that we had to change at the time, I just figured prayer in public school was some practice that those hidebound people ‘back East’ [and remember, for Californians, that’s everything east of Denver and El Paso] were into. Then I went to a private high school, and the speech class did give grace before lunch, and those of such an inclination [mostly Catholics and High Anglicans in those days before the Jesus Movement] were not forbidden to insert the Jesus-word. But there was nothing
particularly Christian about the worldview taught in the school, nor in the behavior of the students on weekends!
Then when I become a Christian, at age 23, it was not any kind of atheism or agnosticism I left behind, but the vague 1950s era spirituality that tried to include Protestants, Catholics, and Jews [and in California, the Christian Scientists and the Self-Realization Fellowship and other things remote from Nicene Christianity]. So I formed the opinion that
the effect of ‘prayer in public schools’ was, in such a society, more likely to turn young people away from the exclusiveness of salvation in Christ than to reinforce it. The Lord’s Prayer is not the Gospel. And now the religious situation of the United States is even more complex than it was then. I don’t think ‘prayer in public school’ is unconstitutional necessarily, but I do think it’s quite imprudent, and I don’t think that the real Triune God is particularly impressed by it or pleased by it.
But more recently it has occurred to me what the meaning of the word ‘God’ in political contexts actually is. It doesn’t have anything necessarily to do with the Triune God [revealed in Scripture], or, on the other hand , Allah. The meaning of the word ‘God’ in political contexts in the U.S. today equals, ‘Not Society.’ And the meaning of ‘secularism’ is that Society ordains not just manners but also morals, the family, and the state. ‘God’ means that while societies differ in manners and customs, ultimate right and wrong is not devised by Society. Nor does Society ordain the state, the family, or any other such major institution. I am not insisting on a ‘personal’ God at this point, but that ultimate standards of truth are transcendent, like the Platonic Form of the Good. Humanity does not
‘decide’ that murder, theft, and adultery are wrong; they know it, and you don’t have to be a Christian to know it. I do not quite fully agree with Margaret Thacher, however, that “there is no such thing as society.” I think there is, and it ordains manners, customs, and languages. It does not ordain the state or the family or religion; though there is an interaction between the historical religion of a region and its manners and customs. Civilizations are in fact often defined by their historic religion; the formerly Christian cultures of the West have commonalities, the Islamic world has other commonalities, as do the Chalcedonian Orthodox, and the Mahayana-Confucian culture of East Asia. I may tread on the brink of heresy here by suggesting that God may have a purpose for non-Christian religions; not to save people or reconcile them to Himself [except perhaps through types of Christ often found in them], but to establish social order.
In this political sense, not even Ayn Rand qualifies as an atheist, and I’m not sure that pure Marxists do either. Rand did not believe for a moment that societies could establish their own morality; she would have called that idea ‘whim worshiping.’ Even Communism believed that there was a historical process that was not under the control of Society. Perhaps the closest to the kind of ‘atheism’ I am talking about was Nazism, which sought to deny all transcendence and run the world for the advantage of one particular ethnicity; the others could get out of the way or die. I am indebted for this insight to Modern Fascism, by Gene Edward Veith. He defined Fascism as the denial of ultimate transcendence – the denial that there was a higher law above the needs of the state or ethnic group.
Oddly, one nation that is somewhat fascist today is a nation that still officially calls itself Communist (i.e., China). Another form was that taken by many of the ethnic groups that emerged bloodily from the former Yugoslavia. Serbs, Croats, and Bosniaks are defined not so much by different language, though they use slightly different dialects and different alphabets, but by nominal religion. And in Northern Ireland, the groups called ‘Protestant’ and ‘Catholic’ were not fighting over theology but over ethnic advantage; it would make more sense to call them ‘Scotch-Irish’ and ‘Irish.’ My friend Paul Marshall has said that the most dangerous form of religion is that form which is a very strong badge of identity while not being much practiced in a spiritual sense.