Jon Stewart Considers "In God We Trust" Debate Just A Waste of Time Distraction. Is It?

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.

Your Thoughts?

Related Camels With Hammers post on themes from this post:

American Values vs. Fundamentalist Values

Questions For Those Who Oppose The Wall of Separation Between Church and State

On The Conflict Over The Meaning And Cultural Influence of Political Secularism

Is it Too Risky to Debate Morality’s Foundations in the Public Square?

How Jon Stewart Dropped The Ball On The Faith And Science Quesiton (But How Religion Can Be Redeemed Nonetheless)

Jon Stewart Against Dogma and Extremism But Not “Religion”

Why Would Being Controlled By A Brain Be Any Less Free Than Being Controlled By An Immaterial Soul?
God’s Not Dead Typifies How Evangelicals Hypocritically Deny Atheists’ Existences
Alix Jules On Being An African American Humanist
Before I Deconverted: I Saw My First “Secular Humanist” On TV
About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • Ewan Macdonald

    Very well said, if a bit… like, far too long.

    That said I also had a laugh at this:

    “Including The Daily Show, the left’s most fearless, undeferent jester.”

    Ho ho ho! Oh man, in Stewart’s fucking dreams is that true. He’s a middle-man in every sense of the word.

  • ‘Tis Himself, OM

    There are people like right-wing revisionist “historian” David Barton making false claims about the role of religion in America’s founding. The religious right continues to spew various contortions asserting a biblical mandate for the destruction of government and establishment of a theocracy in the US.

    The Teabaggers have a nasty habit of demonizing everyone and anyone who disagrees with them. Since the Teabagger leadership is primarily fundamentalist, evangelical Christians, anyone who isn’t a fundamentalist, evangelical Christian is fair game. However, this leadership isn’t stupid. They realize attacking Catholics, mainstream Protestants, and Jews would be counterproductive. But atheists are a prime target. While it’s not true that George Bush I said “No, I don’t know that atheists should be considered as citizens, nor should they be considered as patriots. This is one nation under God.”, many Teabaggers and other Republicans agree with the sentiment.

    • satan augustine

      Actually, George Bush Sr. did make this statement. I’ve seen the video footage of him making this very statement. I cannot find it on youtube (though it may be there somewhere), but then I didn’t originally see/hear it on the internet anyhow.

    • tomh

      satan augustine wrote:
      “Actually, George Bush Sr. did make this statement. I’ve seen the video footage of him making this very statement.”

      That is not possible. The supposed quote dates from 1987 when then Vice President Bush was campaigning for president. At a stop in the Chicago airport he was asked by journalist Rob Sherman about the citizenship and patriotism of American atheists, and Sherman reported that Bush replied, “No, I don’t know that atheists should be considered as citizens, nor should they be considered patriots. This is one nation under God.” Sherman did not tape the exchange nor did any other journalist report it. On the other hand, after he was president the White House never explicitly denied it, so controversy remains to this day. If there were video of it there would be no controversy.

  • Rikitiki

    So…as mentioned on another FTB blog: EVERYBODY needs to Sharpie-mark-over this “official” (yeah right!) motto on EVERY bit of money that goes through their hands…or at least the “god” part of it.
    Money circulates, so at least that message will get around.

  • Alan(UK)

    “Video Unavailable” here.

    I thought the ‘god’ in “In God We Trust” was the almighty dollar.

  • Beth

    This is interesting. I have not thought of it from that perspective myself. Thanks for the food for thought.

  • Doug Indeap

    Excellent points well put.

    The government’s inscription of the phrase “In God we trust” on coins and currency, as well as its addition of the words “under God” to the pledge of allegiance in 1954 and adoption of the phrase “In God we trust” as a national motto in 1956, were mistakes, which should be corrected. Under our Constitution, the government has no business proclaiming that “we trust” “In God.” Some of us do, and some of us don’t; each of us enjoys the freedom to make that choice; the government does not and should not purport to speak for us in this regard. Nor does the government have any business calling on its citizens to voice affirmation of a god in any circumstances, let alone in the very pledge the government prescribes for affirming allegiance to the country. The unnecessary insertion of an affirmation of a god in the pledge puts atheists and other nonbelievers in a Catch 22: Either recite the pledge with rank hypocrisy or accept exclusion from one of the basic rituals of citizenship enjoyed by all other citizens. The government has no business forcing citizens to this choice on religious grounds, and it certainly has no business assembling citizens’ children in public schools and prescribing their recitation of the pledge–affirmation of a god and all–as a daily routine.

    But that’s just me talking. The courts, on the other hand, have sometimes found ways to excuse such things, for instance with the explanation that they are more about acknowledging tradition than promoting religion per se. Draining the government’s nominally religious statements or actions of religious meaning (or at least purporting to do so) and discounting them as non-religious ritual–sometimes dubbed “ceremonial deism”–is one way to find them not to conflict with the First Amendment. Ordinary folks, though, commonly see things differently; when they read “[i]n God we trust,” they think the Government is actually declaring that “we” as a people actually “trust” the actual “God” they believe in. If they understood it as merely a ritualistic phrase devoid of religious meaning, they would hardly get as exercised as they do about proposals to drop it. As you can imagine, those more interested in championing their religion than the constitutional principle of separation of church and state sometimes seek to exploit and expand such “exceptions” even if it requires they fake interest only in tradition.

  • martalayton

    I agreed with an awful lot of what you said, particularly the parts about there being more to life than money and that the proper outrage over this has nothing to do with its frivolity/not being about the economy. I actually had already made my own protest over at my blog, before I even saw this post – I find the mindset that thought this was a good use of the government’s power offensive, and I’m actually a theist (though not that kind of theist!). So I think you have every right to be peeved at this vote.

    I do think that you overstate things a bit when you summarize “the current Congress’s” view that “there’s 98% of us and 2% of you”. I suspect a lot of the Congressmen voted as they did out of cowardice rather than the motives you ascribe to them. I know that in my experience, most religious people either would disagree with this view that you have to be Christian, religious, etc. to be a good American, or simply haven’t thought about it a lot.

    Doesn’t make what actually happened any less despicable, of course. I was ashamed that my country would stoop to this, when I heard, and I’m sorry that you and the other non-theist readers had to feel excluded. FWIW, I suspect many more people than just the non-religious felt excluded. I know I did.

    • Camels With Hammers

      Yes, as I indicated elsewhere in the piece, most of the 98% were just cowards—some of them visibly uncomfortable ones, like Rangel in the video. Nonetheless the message was being sent, “the 98%, whether from cowardice or sincerity will side with the theocratic theists, you’re on your own secularists and atheists.”

  • Philboyd

    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.

    (emphasis mine)

    Daniel, I love your posts, including most of this one (I’ve even written about some of them), but I’m not sure you’ve actually made a case for why this isn’t all that matters in government. You’ve made a rhetorical argument, not a philosophical one. (To be clear, I’m not necessarily arguing that politics is only about the economy, I was just looking forward to see what you had to say to the contrary.)

    • Camels With Hammers

      Yes, I know, when I said here’s why I disagree it set it up as though I would talk a little more about a philosophical justification, whereas it was a little more reiteration of the more general set of viewpoints I have in which this disagreement occurs (rather than a justification for it). I had explicitly, in looking it over, said to myself, yes this is an explanation of why I disagree psychologically, and not necessarily an explanation of why I disagree logically!

      A short answer is that In many ways, many values questions ideally would not have to be questions for government, but insofar as government affects the conditions under which people can flourish and live autonomously privately, those effects need to be taken into account. In the case of debates over how to keep the government secular or whether to make it into a theocracy, we are striking at the very core of what kind of government we are going to have and what kinds of decision making procedures it is going to have and what kinds of attitudes people are going to come to government with. Those who fervently want “In God we Trust” on the money want legislators to go to Washington ready to base legislation on the Christian religious faith and they want to encourage the development of such legislative attitudes through the influence of having so many publicly sanctioned expressions of fealty to the Christian God. Opposing this propaganda would not be some distraction from the real issues but a public defense of the whole philosophy that the “real issues” should be settled by reason and not by faith, by legislators and a voting public who reject the principle that faith should determine policy.

    • Philboyd

      Hmm, okay. That makes more sense – I’m not sure if I totally agree, but thanks for clarifying your position! We certainly both agree on your final point.