After watching that clip from The Daily Show, I think I can finally crystalize what I hear from the average secular progressive voting in Congress, writing for The Daily Show, or watching at home when a topic like whether we should have “In God We Trust” on our money or “Under God” in the pledge of allegiance comes up. I take it they are thinking the following:
In an ideal scenario, we would be a country truly committed to the separation between religion and government to the point where the government did not put references to God in its national mottoes and loyalty oaths. But in the United States, as things stand, there are such references and, given the increasingly religious political climate, it would be political suicide to try to remove them or to protest against them. Since these concessions to the easily offended segment of the religious voting public do no tangible harm to anyone and do not amount to theocratic law in substance, they are not worth fighting against but worth, instead, being treated as wholly uncontroversial matters of tradition. The culture has a heritage with some traditional quirks which are better left alone than actively fought. We should not bother addressing such issues at all except, possibly, to point out that it is paranoid of the right wing to think that progressives care about this stuff at all, and that it is a waste of time for serious politicians to spend their energies on it. People’s harmless religious beliefs should be a private matter anyway, so the less the government says about them the better. A public debate about the propriety of religious belief in public only serves to divide us and make people feel like their private rights to religious freedom are threatened, rather than to advance any substantial secular good.
I hear this same set of assumptions in both the video above and in The Daily Show‘s regular dismissal of activist atheist complaints about governmental recognition of religion (whether in the form of a Mother Theresa stamp or a cross memorial for 9/11 firefighters). Our concerns are cast as overblown, misplaced, counter-productive, and/or unnecessarilly divisive.
Now, in the case of this “In God We Trust” reaffirmation vote the other day, I appreciate that The Daily Show was against it even happening, that they mocked the fallacious and morally ludicrous positions of the Congresspeople who equated religiosity with morality, and that they got on the right wing’s case hard for acting like they were under attack when they were not. But the real story was not “No one disagrees with you, paranoid right wing religious people, so there is nothing to see here” but rather “Right wing politicians bully secular America in Congress by extracting from politicians on the left and right explicit acknowledgments that America should rightly and legitimately make deference to God part of its motto.” The real problem is not that the right wing acted like the motto was under challenge when it wasn’t. The real problem is that anti-secularist theocratic populism and majoritarianism has such a stranglehold on mainstream discussion in this country that no one on the mainstream left will dare challenge it. Including The Daily Show, the left’s most fearless, undeferent jester.
This is not a story about Congress wasting its time reaffirming the status quo. It is a story in which a fervent, theocratically religious minority holds fear of public backlash and election year demonization over the overwhelming majority of Congresspeople, and winds up getting 396 of 405 voting Congresspeople to reaffirm to atheists that there is something unAmerican about us.
This is a symbolically huge issue for millions of majoritarian, theocratically religious Americans who want their country to acknowledge their religion and who regularly refer to the slogans “In God We Trust” and “One Nation Under God” as some sort of proof that our nation both was and should be explicitly religious. I can’t count how many forwarded e-mails I have received which draw these slogans as lines in the sand and try to bully me as unAmerican for being an atheist for having views which are inconsistent with these supposedly fundamental expressions of American values. That people like me see such symbolic deferences to religion—in slogans and state-sanctioned prayers, etc.—as wrong and incompatible with our nation’s secular ideals, makes these symbolic affirmations even more important to these religious people.
They want these affirmations and they mean these affirmations explicitly as anti-secular gestures. They are agitating for official sanction of pro-religious values in national expressions and explicitly want to use them to ferret out and demonize secularist dissenters as unAmericans. They want to make it crystal clear that these slogans are not merely outdated traditions but that the most pro-religious interpretations of them are accurate expressions of our government’s contemporary attitudes. They want to then use this as proof that secularists have values inconsistent with America.
If left alone, the “In God We Trust” slogan could be mostly ignored as merely a politically dead issue. We could treat it as a barely noticed traditional vestige of the red scare era, with unfortunately overt religious connotations for what should be a self-consciously secular nation but without traceable harms to the public discourse. It would still be something I would want to protest without Jon Stewart hushing me. But at least the secular progressive’s line that there are bigger fish to fry before we got to the issue would be plausible.
But with a vote like this, the motto is not just a passively received remnant from the past. It becomes a deliberate, politically and religiously loaded statement of the current Congress’s explicit attitude. And that attitude is that there’s 98% of us and 2% of you, those of you who believe in a truly politically secular country enough to stand for it on principle—which is a way of bullying those of us who are actually atheists, and so fully secular culturally too and not just politically, into feeling like unwelcome minorities whose minority status the majority will make big displays of publicly rubbing in our faces. It’s basically a big vote to say,
Let’s have a show of hands to remind everyone that all of us powerful Congresspeople, beholden as we are to massive theistic majorities in our districts, are not only personally religious but explicitly defer to the authority of religion and defer to our theistic voters, so that the atheists and other secularists in the country are reminded that they are few in number and have little support from those in power.
No, this “In God We Trust” motto reaffirmation does not just waste time rubber stamping the status quo. When I see the motto I will not be able to brush it off as a Cold War relic not worth fighting over. I will see it as what it has just been affirmed to be—a motto meant to exclude me, to propagandize to the average American that acceptance by their fellow Americans requires belief in God, an affirmation that theism is an integral contemporary American value, and a potent and threatening symbol of Evangelical Christians’ power to get a nearly unanimous majority of even the political secularists in Congress to cowardly bow before their God politically.
Now, maybe you protest that all culture war issues are just bread and circuses for the masses while the 1% loot the national treasury. You say that all that really matters in government is the economy and the rest of what it sells is just opiates, gladiator games, and cheap paranoia meant to make you pull the voting booth lever that best serves the wealthiest.
Here’s why I disagree with that.
I think that the cultural clash over competing values matters. I think that our explicit and implicit values matter to what kind of a people we are and what kinds of lives we lead. I think it is valuable, even in the issues that have nothing to do with politics, to have debates over the beliefs and values which influence how we conceive of and pursue the good life and how we treat each other. I also think it is valuable that sometimes the laws be changed to stop reinforcing harmful values and to start promoting better ones.
Not every values issue, by a long shot, should become a legal issue. But some should. There is more to life than money. And there is more that government influences, for good or for ill, intentionally or unintentionally, than how the nation’s wealth is created and distributed. And, on other issues, like gay rights or reproductive rights, secular progressives, including The Daily Show, are crystal clear on this point. Why aren’t they vigilantly concerned when it comes to the principle of the separation of religious power from governmental power? Why do they pretend that symbols—and symbolic votes meant to bully minorities and to explicitly affirm theocratic and anti-secular values—are meaningless?
We live in an America where people are falsely being taught that anything less than governmental affirmation of their faith is an attack by government on their faith and that any deliberate moves to properly secularize governmental slogans or practices which presently express religious values is an expression of hostility to religion when it is only a purifying, principled gesture of neutrality. These false beliefs need to be countered explicitly, not pandered to as Congress has, nor treated as too politically impossible to be raised and challenged as The Daily Show did Thursday night.
Related Camels With Hammers post on themes from this post: