God Goes on Trial in San Francisco

Deal W. Hudson
December 3, 2007

On December 4, Seamus Hasson, president of the Becket Fund, will argue on behalf of public school students who want to keep “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance.

Two years ago, the politically liberal Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals (San Francisco) struck down recitation of the Pledge because it contains “under God.” Judge Lawrence Karlton concluded that requiring students to utter the phrase “under God” constitutes an endorsement of religion.

The Becket Fund, a non-profit institute dedicated to religious liberty, represents the appeal of parents, students, and the Knights of Columbus who want the decision overturned. The Knights mounted a campaign in 1951 to add “God” to the pledge, but it was a Presbyterian minister, Rev. George Docherty, who convinced President Dwight D. Eisenhower to support the change in 1954.

The series of lawsuits leading to the recent banning of the Pledge was instigated by an atheist, Michael Newdow. Newdow, something of a contemporary of Madalyn Murray O’Hair, objected to his daughter being required to recite the “under God” portion of the Pledge.

As Hasson puts it, “Newdow’s position, in a nutshell, is that you can’t lawfully require students to recite ‘one nation under Krishna.’”

Hasson, in response, will argue that the American Founders, who evoked God regularly, stood in a long philosophical tradition that considered God as knowable by reason alone. In other words, he’ll argue that the God of the Pledge belongs to no particular religion – in fact, the God of the Pledge does not belong to faith at all. (The arguments are being taped by C-Span for broadcast at a later date.)

The God under which our nation exists is one of natural theology, a God knowable through reason reflecting on the contingency of finite existence. (Remember the five proofs for the existence of God from St. Thomas Aquinas?)

Hasson believes more is at stake than the tradition of the Pledge itself. “We have to protect the next generation’s concept of where our rights come from, as affirmed in the Declaration of Independence.” The defense of God in the Pledge is also a defense of inalienable rights – rights that cannot be taken away by the government because they are not conferred by the government (they come from God).

As Hasson will argue: The idea of limited government and inalienable rights are necessarily connected. Take away God and you take away inalienable rights; take away these rights and you remove the limits of the state over our lives.

Michael Newdow may object to his daughter being required to utter the phrase “under God,” but I will bet he would mind much more if her inalienable rights to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” were taken from her.

Newdow also wants to have the words “In God We Trust” removed from United States currency. In fact, his challenge is being argued on the same day, after the “under God” appeal.

If the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals finds in favor of Newdow, it is virtually certain the court will object to “In God We Trust” as well.

It is the tradition of the Catholic Church to regard God’s existence is demonstrable. The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches “Man’s faculties make him capable of coming to the knowledge of the existence of a personal God.” Nevertheless, it has become fashionable to dismiss proofs for the existence of God as “medieval” and “unscientific.”

One of the last philosophers to write a substantial work on proving God’s existence was Mortimer J. Adler who converted to Catholicism the year before he died. His How to Think About God was published in 1991 and is a good place to start for those who are interested in one way Aquinas’s proofs have been updated.

The argument being made by Seamus Hasson on December 4 may require more than the existence of a tradition, a history of proofs for the existence of God. It may require the witness of those who still knows how the ancient wisdom leads the mind from the sensual presence of finite things to conclude with certainty that a “creator,” an infinite God, must exist.

Dust off your Summa Theologica and get to work

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