Sally Quinn and Jon Meacham, she of the Washington Post and he of Newsweek, have sort of a point / counterpoint set of articles in the "On Faith" section of the paper’s and magazine’s combined website.  Quinn argues that the tag "so help me God" shows "contempt for non-believers, while Meacham argues that the oath to God shows "regard for church and state".  Read Meacham’s piece first, as Quinn responds to specific points in his article.

The foundation of Quinn’s argument is that she thinks that religion should be compartmentalized.

Much good is done in the name of religion and there are many wonderful, intelligent and honorable people who are believers. I simply think that it doesn’t have a place in the public square.

And why is that?

My problem is with God. Actually, my problem is with the concept of God. I don’t know what "God" means.

But it’s not readily apparent that, because of her ignorance, why she might think that discussion of such a topic shouldn’t be allowed in public.  And just because, as she asserts, previous Presidents who invoked God had moral failings, it doesn’t invalidate their God. 

At one point, Quinn confesses confusion over Pascal’s Wager, but her reaction to it only points out her ignorance on this whole "God" thing.

Pascal’s wager never made sense to me. If there is an omniscient and omnipotent God and we believe in him we’re good to go. If there’s not and we don’t believe in him we don’t have a problem. If there is and we don’t believe in him, it’s because he doesn’t want us to and therefore we are following his will.

If you don’t know what "God" means, then how can you possibly draw the inference that if we don’t believe in him it’s because he doesn’t want us to?  How could you possibly assert that?  Isn’t it equally as likely an explanation that we’re not looking for him?  Or perhaps we’re simply on a quest to find out facts about God, but not get to know him.  Or that we’re afraid to find out about him because of what we may find out about ourselves?  Or that we refuse to believe in a God that permits evil in the world?  There are as many reasons to not believe in God as there are human beings. 

Meacham’s argument for "…so help me God" is less about religion and more of a case of "hey, what can it hurt?"  He at least does make a good show of dealing with that Jeffersonian phrase that has been elevated to "founding document" status by some.

The secular nature of the American government is one of its abiding strengths, but moments of prayer or a "So help me, God" here and there are no threat to the wall of separation Jefferson spoke of in his New Year’s Day 1802 letter to the Danbury Baptist Association. We can keep church and state separate, and we should. But as a matter of history and human nature, we cannot keep politics and religion separate, and we should not try. For politics and religion are both about people, about their hopes and their fears and their values and their sense of destiny and of duty.

And so we have a new poll on the blog:  Should the President, Obama in particular, use the phrase "so help me God"?  The poll has a simple yes/no answer, but I’m sure reasons for both are as varied as the voter, so let us know why you think he should or shouldn’t.

Filed under: DougGovernmentPollsReligion

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