Some conservatives today offer a kind of pride of place to religion. And they will even allow that some religious observances of a traditional or historic nature should be allowed during government functions under the theory that certain religious-sounding expressions are merely civic in nature. You see this in Justice Kennedy’s opinion in Town of Greece, where invocation prayers are extolled because they “lend gravity to the occasion and reflect values long part of the Nation’s heritage.” Justice O’Connor’s opinion in Elk Grove is another classic example: “I believe that although these references speak in the language of religious belief, they are more properly understood as employing the idiom for essentially secular purposes.”
In a similar vein, the Court’s recent opinion in the Peace Cross case  upheld the constitutionality of a cross on public land in part because it had a secular purpose: “That the cross originated as a Christian symbol and retains that meaning in many contexts does not change the fact that the symbol took on an added secular meaning when used in World War I memorials.”
But this has things exactly backward. Religion was protected at the Founding because it was considered by those and subsequent generations to represent a real, religious duty to God – a Supreme Being to whom we owe all things. It was not protected because it adds solemnity to our civic proceedings or connects us to our history.
The invocation of God adds solemnity to a civic event because He is holy. Invocations of God connect us to our ancestors and history because God is the God of the living, not the dead. Every secular purpose imagined by Justice O’Connor exists because God is real. Thus, it is impossible to separate the civic benefits of religious observance from their religious meaning. Religion benefits the government, but it is not made to merely to serve as a means of improving government.
Moreover, this view of Christianity as a civic religion is contrary to how it has always viewed itself – as a religion founded by Christ, not by secular governments. In contrast, the pagans had civic government. Politics created pagan religion, not the other way around: religion existed for the sake of the political order, the political order did not exist to serve religion.
As Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger explains in Truth and Tolerance, Varro – a Roman philosopher –showed that ancient religion could be divided into three categories: (1) poetic; (2) civic; and (3) natural. The civic religion was man-made and informed by the poets. It was a way for a community to instill the virtue of piety in its citizens. The natural religion touched on the Creator – but because his will was not known, he was not worshiped. Instead, the inventions of the community took his place.
The gentiles had to create their own religions to practice piety. Rome was famously an empire with many religions. And what you practiced mattered little, so long as the official religion was respected and observed. Religion was mainly a civic or political activity.
The introduction of the Judeo-Christian revelation of the one God – a God that was not invented but real and universal – was “atheism” in such a context because it refused to acknowledge political worship as normative. It was a concept of religion separate from the state – religion governed by God. Eventually, Christianity obtained toleration and then endorsement throughout the Roman Empire. But it always fought for and insisted on its independence from state control.
While Christianity took the place of civic religion – it was never a civic religion as understood by the pagans. It did not exist because a state created it. The practice of Christianity provided for the exercise of piety and a way to generate social unity, including by providing shared holidays. But it was not created just as a means for providing those benefits to the state.
Indeed, Saint Augustine explained that if Christianity should be placed anywhere in Varro’a scheme of religion – it should be considered a form of natural theology, the theology of creation, of objective truth, not political religion. The Declaration of Independence takes up this thread by insisting that God’s law is an objective check on all governments, including the King of England. It’s not a law that is subject to political controls, rather politics must be governed by it.
So what’s the upshot? Religion is not an abstract concept in American law or politics. It’s a duty owed to our Creator – that Supreme Being who bestowed on us inalienable rights. Nor were we in doubt that He had revealed Himself to us in various ways – by the law written on our hearts and through divine revelation.
We invoked His authority when declaring our independence. We trusted many of our causes and crises to His care. And we fought for freedom in His name. It is on the bedrock of an unchangeable and all-wise God that we have secured our rights. Our national motto is “In God We Trust.”
Promoting religion is not some exercise in maximizing personal autonomy, then. Rather, it is way for the polity to acknowledge and assert that it is God who rules. Rooting religious rights in a rational, loving God will make it impossible to argue that religious exercise is merely the exercise of some idiosyncratic and arbitrary invocation of transcendental or demonic powers. And it will tend to promote religious practices that encourage forgiveness, love of neighbor, and jealous protection of every citizen’s God-given rights. In this way, the rights of all will find greater security – rooted in obligations to God rather than as grants from the government.
But ultimately, it affirms the good of giving God His due. We should not settle for a hollowed out or civic justification for the value of religion in American public life or law. In the words of Saint Justin Martyr: “To obey the commandments of our Savior Jesus Christ is worthy neither of blame nor of condemnation.”