What stood behind her, the most potent moral force in her life, was the love of her father. She never questioned it, never thought about it, never even realized that before she made any decision of importance the reflex, “What would Atticus do?” passed through her unconscious… she did not know that she worshiped him.
This quotation occurs in Chapter 9, after Jean Louise has seen Atticus and Henry in the white supremacist meeting. Jean Louise reflects on her perception of Atticus and how that has impacted the way she leads her life. For many people in Maycomb, religion is a reflex, as they believe in God unquestioningly and subconsciously. For Jean Louise, Atticus fills the role that God fills in others’ belief systems. The phrase “What would Atticus do?” gently riffs on the common Christian dictum “What would Jesus do?” This phrase was popularized in 1896 by Charles Sheldon in his popular book In His Steps, subtitled “What Would Jesus Do?” Sheldon’s book promotes the Protestant idea that good works and following in the example of Christ are critical components to living a full, successful, devout life. Jean Louise’s substitution of Atticus for Jesus highlights the centrality of Atticus in Jean Louise’s moral and spiritual life.
The idea of Atticus forms an almost spiritual bedrock underpinning how Jean Louise perceives the world. Jean Louise has always prided herself on her independence and her ability to make individual decisions, but in reality, she has always made her decisions by checking in with a higher power. The internal Atticus in Jean Louise’s imagination is not the same as the real Atticus. Rather, Jean Louise has internalized what Atticus taught her growing up, and now, she uses the imagined voice and judgment of Atticus to help her make moral and ethical decisions. But Jean Louise has conflated her own internal Atticus with the real-life Atticus. She doesn’t realize that when she’s asking herself, “What would Atticus do?” she’s really checking in with her own moral compass. Atticus didn’t teach Jean Louise how to imitate him exactly. Instead, he taught her how to make her own decisions and be honest with herself.