Ceremonial deism in classical times

If ceremonial deism is so harmless, why do Christians honor their early martyrs for refusing to burn incense on the altar before the statue of the Emperor?

Among the central legal issues in the Pledge case is whether “under God” is a case of “ceremonial deism”: that is, whether it doesn’t actually mean — well, you know, GOD, the One whose Name is too sacred for observant Jews to even write down or pronounce — but is merely a vague reference to the Tao, or something.

As a factual matter, it isn’t of course, in the mouths of most Americans. Otherwise the emotions around the case wouldn’t run so high. “One nation under God” means “You’re not a part of our nation unless you worship our God.”

What’s a little puzzling is why Christians should be so willing to impose acts of forced worship on those who disagree with them. Their history (and behind it, the history of the Jews) argues the other side of the case.

After all, the deification of the Roman Emperor was more a political than a religious matter: a way of tying together an empire not linked by ethnicity or language (the East being largely Greek-speaking and the barbarians in Gaul, Germania, Iberia, and Britain mostly continuing to grunt their uncivilized grunts).

No sophisticated Roman really thought that the Augustus for the time being actually got to pal around with Jupiter on Olympus. Nor was the statue of the Emperor — or the statue of Jupiter, for that matter — worshipped. It was a symbol of an idea, the way the flag is a symbol of an idea. To those of an even slightly philosophical turn of mind, Jupiter himself — the evil-tempered, lecherous patriarch of the dysfunctional Olympian family — wasn’t real the way the Emperor was real; he, too, was a symbol.

But to the Christians, burning a harmless bit of incense at the alter before the statue of the Emperor was worshipping an idol, and they preferred to face the lions. The same was true of the Hasidim — the Jews who resisted Hellenization under the Seleucids and fought successfully under the Maccabees. What to their Greek-speaking, Olympian-worshipping rulers, and their Hellenizing fellow-Jews (including the Kohane Gadol Menalaus (!), was the perfectly normal act of swearing the municipal oaths on the altar before the statue of Zeus Wisest and Best was to them an appalling act of Avodah Zarah — worshipping foreign gods — and Hannah (according to the story) was willing to see her seven sons slaughtered before her eyes rather than do any such thing.

So how about cutting Mr. Newdow some slack? He, like Hannah, doesn’t want his children forced to worship what he thinks is a false God. Update: I see the American Jewish Congress came in as an amicus on the pro-“under God” side. The brief isn’t a bad one, and its purpose is clearly to protect existing Establishment Clause doctrine from a too-sweeping opinion. Still, I doubt the Maccabees would have agreed with the AJC.

Now, the case certainly comes before the Court at an especially unfortunate time. The last thing that’s needed at this moment is something to further mobilize the armies of the Religious Right. So I mostly hope the Court will decide that Newdow lacks standing — being, as he is, the non-custodial parent — and thus avoid either rendering what Dahlia Lithwick thinks is the obviously correct decision or enshrining in its precedents the right of the majority to impose worship on the children of the minority.

Update: Leon Wieseltier argues that ceremonial Deism ought to be offensive to non-Deists — to Christians and Jews, for example — as well as to non-believers. I concur.

Second update A reader points out that the term “Hasidim” refers to the followers of the Ba’al Shem Tov and concludes that its use above to refer to the anti-Hellenizing precursors of the Maccabbee revolt must be an error. Same word — literally, it means “saints” — used as self-description by two different movements. (Note that the Puritan revolutionaries of seventeenth-century England also called themselves “the saints,” as did the early Mormons.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com