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In 1959 the state of Ohio adopted as its motto a quotation from the Gospel of Matthew: "With God, all things are possible." Last year, in the case of American Civil Liberties Union v. Capitol Square Review and Advisory Board, a three-judge panel of the federal court of appeals held that the motto violated the Establishment Clause of the Constitution. Many Christians were grim. Then, in March of this year, the full court of appeals reversed the panel, upholding the motto after all. When embodied in the seal of the state, the court announced, the words of Jesus serve a secular purpose.

As a constitutional scholar, I agree with the court's conclusion that the motto is not forbidden by the First Amendment. Public acknowledgment of the religiosity of the American people lies near the heart of the civil religion that is a basic part of our public life. A common life from which religion is wholly absent would be dreary, vulgar, and, for most people, devoid of meaning.

But the fact that the state of Ohio has the right to adopt Christ's words as its motto does not tell us whether doing so is a wise thing. It is not obvious that an enthusiastic embrace of the civil religion is always, or even usually, good for Christianity. Indeed, before Christians rush to cheer the court's ruling, it is worth reflecting on what the judges actually said.

There is, the judges explained, "nothing uniquely Christian about the thought that all things are possible with God." Those who hear or observe the phrase, moreover, "are unlikely to have even the vaguest notion of the source from which Ohio's motto was drawn." In other words, the phrase, lifted from its biblical context, is utterly mundane.

The court's opinion helps illustrate why Christians should ...

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Civil Reactions
Stephen Carter is the William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Law at Yale University. He is the author of The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln (2012), The Violence of Peace, The Emperor of Ocean Park, and many other books. His column, "Civil Reactions," ran from 2001 until 2007.
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In the Magazine

May 21, 2001

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