The incorporation of Christian practices in American government functions is often defended by claiming that they are not specifically Christian but are instead forms of ceremonial deism. Examples include Congressional chaplains and the national motto "In God We Trust". Supposedly anything that qualifies as ceremonial deism is so traditional and general that it couldn't possibly offend anyone and must therefore be constitutional. Is that really true?
Ceremonial Deism in American Government
Created in 1962 by Eugene Rostow, the dean of Yale Law School, the concept "ceremonial deism" is supposed to refer to any government practice that has become "so conventional and uncontroversial as to be constitutional." It's not a denial that the practice is religious, merely that it's controversial.
The unstated premise is that only controversial religious practices in government should be found unconstitutional; uncontroversial religious practices in government should be left alone. This by itself should be enough to question the legitimacy of the concept.
The "deism" part is sometimes overlooked, but it's critical point of contention as well. It refers to belief in a creator or watchmaker god which created the universe and has since been uninvolved — an absentee landlord, if you will. Deism rejects miracles, revelations, and a host of other beliefs which many Christians today take for granted.
This deistic god was "God" for many of the Founders who helped create the U.S. Constitution and American government. This is not God for Pat Robertson, Billy Graham, Rick Warren, or any of the other evangelical Christians who are prominent in politics or culture today.
Questioning Ceremonial Deism
Mr. Thorne explains in Liberty that there's a lot more controversy over religion than defenders of ceremonial deism would like to admit:
In the United States there are more than 4 million Presbyterians who believe in Jesus and more than 4 million Jews who don’t. Jesus is controversial.
There are more than 63 million Catholics that believe God is a Trinity and almost 3 million Muslims that believe God is One. The nature of God is controversial.
There are some 3 million atheists who don’t believe there is a God, and another 6 million agnostics who don’t know. The existence of God is controversial.
There are millions of Americans—mostly Buddhists and Hindus—who believe that there is more than one God.
There are all sorts of religious beliefs. They’re inherently controversial. That there is only one God is a controversial proposition, no matter how popular it is.
Religion is Controversial
Everything in religion is controversial. Believers themselves have demonstrated this with all their religious wars, religious persecutions, heresies, and so forth. Thorne is therefore correct that there are no religious beliefs or notions that are not controversial, if we use a simple sense of "controversial" as "not everyone agrees and those who don't agree shouldn't be told that they must or that they are less fully citizens for not agreeing..."
This means there's no way to defend "ceremonial deism" without adding to the above "...and if anyone is indeed bothered, well that's just too bad - we're going to cater to the desires of the majority and placate their religious sensibilities... the religious sensibilities of everyone else are irrelevant."
But such an addition isn't appropriate for a government that is pledged to religious freedom and true equality for all citizens, regardless of their religious beliefs.
Catering to Christian Privilege
Government has no authority to take sides in religious disputes and religious disagreements. Government has no business deciding that if enough people believe something for a long enough time, then that religious belief now deserves official support and endorsement. There's no statute of limitations on violations of the Constitution.
Ceremonial Deism, it seems, is just a fancy term for the religious privilege of the majority — a privilege which has been enjoyed for far too long and which must come to an end.