This column originally appeared on Human Events on January 20, 2009.
Michael Newdow, the professional atheist who tried to have “one nation under God” stricken from the Pledge of Allegiance, has lost his crusade to prevent the mention of God at the inauguration. Though it’s not written into the Constitution, presidents usually close their oath with the words “So help me God.” Newdow wanted a court to tell President-elect Obama that he cannot say those words, and he also wanted to ban the tradition of inaugural prayers. On Thursday, U.S. District Judge Reggie Walton threw out Mr. Newdow’s attempt to establish his religion — the religion of atheism.
If reference to God in the inaugural ceremony were unconstitutional, every president since the beginning of the republic would be guilty of violating his oath — immediately after taking it — to “preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution.” Every inaugural address since Washington’s first has acknowledged the Divine. Many have quoted from Scripture.
When our newly-sworn President prays, “So help me God,” and when the Rev. Rick Warren delivers the invocation, they will not harm the Constitution. But if ever a judge were to declare that the participants in an inaugural ceremony could not appeal to God, he would violate the deepest principles of our nation.
America was founded on the idea that all human beings are created equal, endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights. If all are equal, that means that no person is less human than the President himself. It also means that the President is not God. President Obama may bring “change we can believe in,” but something is amiss if that’s all we have to believe in.
There is such a thing as non-theism, but there is no such thing as non-belief. As Mr. Newdow insisted to me in an e-mail exchange several years ago, “I believe that I adhere to a religion. My religion denies the existence of any god My religious worldview is atheism.”
Of course, there is plenty of room in America for atheists. Thomas Jefferson wrote, “It does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods, or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.”
But as an operative view for society, atheism is destructive, to say the least. Jefferson himself acknowledged the link between public faith and the public good. “Can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are the gift of God?” he asked.
Because just as every individual believes in something, every society believes in something. Some societies, like most Muslim countries, adhere to a particular theistic religion. Others, like most communist countries, establish atheism as a state religion. Here in America, we’ve found a way to include God in our national creed without excluding people of diverse faiths — indeed, without excluding those who don’t believe in God.
That’s why no atheist should take offense at the mention of God in the inaugural ceremonies. If “God” were a pretext for the destruction of our liberties — a serious problem in the history of the world — all of us would have reason to complain. But here, God is understood as the provider of our liberties. Here, it’s fully possible to affirm faith in God as the basis of our public life without establishing a particular religion.
That kind of public faith is what George Washington was talking about when he said in his Farewell Address that “religion and morality” are the “indispensable supports” of “political prosperity.” He said that it would be wrong to call somebody a patriot if he tried to undermine “these great pillars of human happiness.” He called on people of faith and public officials in particular “to respect and to cherish” religion and morality. Then he asked, “Where is the security for property, for reputation, for life, if the sense of religious obligation deserts the oaths which are the instruments of investigation in courts of justice?” Without trusting God in our oaths — including the presidential oath of office — public trust will crumble.
Finally, Washington told us that we should be skeptical of people who suppose that America can be good without God. “And let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion.” Choosing his words carefully, Washington didn’t exclude atheists from the American experiment. But he suggested that we should be skeptical when we encounter their attacks on our nation’s “indispensable supports.”
As a new president takes the oath, we should pay attention to our first president. Because if ever government takes the place of God in our public life — if ever we become “One nation under the Government” — then we will be living under despotism. Secular fundamentalists should take that just as seriously as fundamentalist Christians.