Ceremonial deism is a legal term used in the United States to designate governmental religious references and practices deemed to be mere ritual and non-religious through long customary usage.
Again, referring to Wikipedia, the term, “ceremonial deism” was first coined in 1962, by the then-dean of the Yale Law School, Eugene Rostrow, and subsequently used by the Supreme Court in considering State / Church separation issues. What is apparently intended is to take instances of the use of the word, “God” in governmental language and ceremonies and treat it as though it were generic, not relating to any particular deity, but perhaps to the presumption of a common belief held by the citizenry of the United States.
Personally, I’ve had a problem with ceremonial deism, ever since I first heard the term. Consider the era in which the term was created. The Sixties were ripe with the Cold War against the Soviet Union, nearly yielding to a very hot war with the advent of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Corporate America, still reacting to Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, was using church language and sophisticated promotional efforts to steer the public away from FDR’s supposed socialism and back to capitalism, as documented in Kevin M. Kruse’s book, One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America. The fetishistic embrace of God in this time was meant to set the US apart from the “godless Communists” who had threatened, in the words of Nikita Khrushchev, “We will bury you.” For a considerable time, many school classrooms started their days with prayers. The crew of Apollo 8 famously read from Genesis as they prepared to return from their historic first flight to the moon, and the only person to take offense was Madalyn Murray O’Hair, whose lawsuit was summarily dismissed.
The fact is, though, that this was a time when religion in general and Christianity in particular were seen as utterly innocuous, harmless, a natural and important part of daily life. It was before the revelations of Catholic priests sexually abusing kids, the tragedies surrounding Jim Jones and later, of David Koresh, Jim and Tammy Fae Bakker scamming their flock, and the likes of Jimmy Swaggart and Ted Haggard being caught in flagrante delicto with their respective paramours. Those events opened up cracks in Christianity’s veneer of respectability, and while they were serious, they were not sufficiently so to create genuine doubts in the minds of the general populace.
The real blow to religious credibility came on the second Tuesday of September, 2001. It may be that those 19 hijackers did more to discredit not just Islam but all such belief systems when their actions made a lie of their putative “religion of peace.” Out of that came new expressions of atheism and criticism of religion, initially from the likes of Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Daniel Dennett, to be followed by many, many others. Suddenly, the presumption of harmlessness associated with ceremonial deism was challenged on multiple fronts, from Michael Newdow’s repeated legal efforts to strike “In God We Trust” from US currency to multiple attempts and frequent successes to remove religious icons and markers from public property. Perhaps for the first time in American history, religion was under a kind of scrutiny it had never experienced before and those presumedly generic mentions of god along with it.
In the midst of this questioning, an important point needs to be made. When “In God We Trust” was first impressed on US coinage during the Civil War, it was a campaign by Christian advocates that caused that alteration to happen. The same is true regarding the insertion of: “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance in 1954 and the adoption of “In God We Trust” as the nation’s motto in 1956, along with its subsequent occurrence on paper money a year later. There have been no similar efforts from Jews or Muslims, regarding any attempts by them to incorporate their own religious expressions into governmental usages. In the final analysis, ceremonial deism turns out to be purely a Christian-sourced phenomenon.
The TL;DR version is both simple and obvious: ceremonial deism is a LIE. It amounts to little other than one more effort by Christian representatives to superimpose their belief system on a secular government, in an attempt to further cement their privilege and dominance on the country at large. It deserves to be treated in the same way prayer in schools and the Ten Commandments in courthouses are currently being treated: by their rejection and removal from governmental venues and public monetary support. At a time when religious practice in the United States is at an all-time low and continuing to decline, while the numbers of non-religiously-affiliated Americans is on the rise, it is clearly time to recognize the problematic nature of ceremonial deism.
And it is time to dispose of it.