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A Nation Under God; a Nation That Keeps the Sabbath

June 24, 2011


A Nation Under God; a Nation That Keeps the Sabbath

By Rev. Robert Barron

The just-concluded US Open was won by Northern Irishman Rory McIlroy in convincing fashion indeed. Wielding one of the most impressive swings in golf, McIlroy absolutely dominated the field, winning by eight strokes over his nearest competitor and posting the lowest score ever in the one hundred and eleven year history of that storied tournament. 

But an interesting controversy distracted some attention from McIlroy’s big day. NBC commenced its coverage of the final round with a patriotic montage of flags, soldiers, and salutes (the tournament was played at the Congressional Country Club just north of Washington, D.C.). The voiceover was of a group of school kids reciting the pledge of allegiance. We heard “I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the republic for which it stands, one nation…indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” Strangely, inexplicably, the phrase “under God” was excised. NBC was flooded, almost immediately, with protests from around the country, and Dan Hicks, the anchor for the golf coverage, was compelled to issue an apology, even if it was one of those less than convincing “we apologize to anyone who might have been small-minded to have been offended…”

One wonders whom the producers of the broadcast were trying to impress or not to offend. I guess it must have been atheist and agnostic golf fans, for I can’t imagine people of any religious denomination who would have been outraged at the mention of God. Of course, by not offending that rather small community, they manage to offend everyone else—and to do violence to the words of the pledge.

And though it might not be immediately apparent, this is no small thing. The claim that we are a nation “under God” is an affirmation that we stand opposed to tyrannies of all stripes. What creates a tyrant is the assumption that he and his policies are beyond criticism, because his will is the criterion of truth. Political rulers are, in fact, under God, because God is the ultimate criterion of truth and justice; and there is, therefore, a limit to what any political figure can, with moral rectitude, legislate or command. When God is denied, political power knows no limit—even if that power rests in a legislature or in the will of “the people”—and therefore tyranny becomes almost inevitable. If you doubt me, take a look at the massively dysfunctional regimes of the last century—Hitler’s, Stalin’s, Mao’s, Pol Pot’s—which were predicated upon the formal and explicit exclusion of God from the public conversation.

One of the most significant contributions of the Bible to politics is precisely the placing of kings “under God.” Israelite kings were not like Egyptian Pharoahs or Babylonian divine-rulers—absolute in judgment and godlike in sovereignty. Rather, they ruled at the pleasure of God and according to God’s purposes, and accordingly, when they ran counter to the divine will, they were placed, quite properly, under judgment. Take a look at the bitter denunciations of wicked kings in Isaiah, Jeremiah, Amos, Ezekiel, Daniel, and John the Baptist. The prophets, speaking for God, excoriated Israel’s leaders for their idolatry and their indifference to the suffering of the weak and the poor. It is precisely this Biblical intuition that shaped the thinking of the political philosophers of the 18th century, who put in place the whole set of checks and balances to which we have become accustomed. The bottom line is this: when the true God is marginalized, someone else or something else—the army, the press, the government, a single leader—plays the role of God, and that is dangerous indeed. I want ours to be a nation under God, not primarily out of pious considerations, but for my own safety’s sake!

This is just one of the many frightening faces of an ideological secularism that we have allowed, increasingly, to dominate public life in America. Curiously, about midway through the final round of the US Open, Johnny Miller, the always entertaining color commentator for NBC Golf, inadvertantly suggested one reason for this dominance. A colleague asked Johnny why Ken Venturi, who won the Open at the Congressional Club in 1964, had played two rounds on Saturday in the blazing Washington heat. Miller explained that, in those days, golfers didn’t play on Sunday for it was the Sabbath day. His simple answer brought me back to my own childhood, when Sunday did indeed have a distinctive texture: businesses were closed, sporting activities were suspended, almost everyone went to church. The honoring of the Sabbath—stipulated in the third of the ten commandments—is a way to remind ourselves of the Lordship of God and hence it is a supremely effective means to hallow the country. It is sad that we have largely lost any sense of Sunday’s difference: it is now more or less another weekend day off. It’s sad yes, but if my argument above is right, it’s also more than a little frightening.