Well, Don't We Liberals Hate the Public God?

Ok, so GOP Rep. Todd Akin is a demagogue. He knew he was exaggerating when he said that "the heart of liberalism really is a hatred of God." Plenty of liberals are theists and many who are not are perfectly respectful of God (though there is a strain in Christopher Hitchens and the other New Atheists who really do have a hatred for God).

But when Akin corrected himself to say that liberals have "a hatred for public references for God", you have to wonder why anyone would take offense. For the past several weeks, I have been going around addressing liberal groups arguing that there is a place for God language in the public square. I have to tell you it is a tough sell.

When even Douglas Laycock, a quite moderate professor of law at Virginia, and probably the country's leading theorist about church and state, says that "in principle" the "under God" language in the Pledge of Allegiance is unconstitutional, but that current litigation to remove it is "many decades premature", he is not only affirming Akin's point, but is dooming liberalism to years and years of anti-God attacks.

This is frustrating to me because it is so unnecessary. First of all, many nonbelievers use God language and always have. Perhaps most famously John Dewey used the term God to refer to the power of the absolute in human affairs. And today, scientists such as Stuart Kauffman use the term to refer to the endless creativity in the universe. There is no reason to assume that every use of the word God is a theological claim.

Second, the use of the word God in the American political tradition has also reflected nontheological claims. The Declaration of Independence referred to the Creator to make the point that our rights are not gifts from men but are inherent. Lincoln used the word God to make a point about the consequences of the fundamental national injustice of slavery. Robert Bellah explained years ago that the primary use of God language in the public square is to rely on a morality beyond human invention.

Yes, the use of the word God in politics is always a claim about objective values. But it is not always or even usually a theological argument about whether God exists.

I already know that many liberals are unconvinced by arguments like these. They prefer to grouse about references to God in the public square. Even if they admit they don't have the votes today to eliminate the national motto or rewrite the Pledge of Allegiance, they hope one day that will change.

To such liberals, I say "good luck." You are condemning liberalism to minority status. You are closing your ears to a rich tradition of wisdom. You are unthinkingly embracing relativism. And you are handing a weapon to the Todd Akins of our age.