A Particular God

Ed Brayton at Dispatches from the Culture Wars gives us the scoop on a California school district which voted to display posters declaring “In God We Trust” in every classroom in the district. Although one board member called the display a way of “promoting patriotism”, a different quote indicates what the real intention is here:

The classroom displays were first suggested by the non-profit group In God We Trust — America Inc., whose president, Jacquie Sullivan, is a Bakersfield councilwoman.

“I encouraged the trustees to put this on the agenda,” she said. “It’s very important. We need to promote patriotism and promote it in our schools. We can’t just assume that the younger generations are going to have that strong love for God and their country the way the older generations do.”

…The councilwoman, who said she is a registered Republican and a Christian who attends a local Baptist church, told FOXNews.com that she has neither a religious nor political agenda in pushing for the measure.

Aside from the ignorance this quote shows (teaching “the love of God” is not the job of the public schools, nor of any other arm of government), it makes it obvious that the intent is to indoctrinate children into believing in God in the way the measure’s backers would like. I doubt it will work (since when did a poster on a classroom wall affect any student’s deeply held personal beliefs?), but it is the intent that’s most important, not the effect.

Granted, several equally obvious violations have been upheld by the courts before. When Michael Newdow appeared before the Supreme Court in 2004, several justices suggested that the concept of “ceremonial deism” could encompass the religious language in the Pledge of Allegiance and shelter it from legal challenge. Justice O’Connor’s eventual concurring opinion in that case repeated this claim. Under this doctrine, a court can hold that religious language is not really religious at all, but merely “ceremonial” and not unconstitutional. Typically, this legal theory is applied when a court wants to find a way out of having to enforce the First Amendment against a widely practiced or long-overlooked constitutional violation.

The idea of “ceremonial deism” ties into this recent story about Mitt Romney’s rocky road in the U.S. presidential campaign, and the difficulties he faces in winning over evangelical voters who are suspicious of his Mormon beliefs.

“We need more injection of an understanding of God in our political life,” said Roy Moore, the former chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court and a potential third-party, anti-abortion presidential candidate. “I am looking for a candidate that understands that this nation is established on a particular God.”

As always when hearing Roy Moore speak, I remain amazed that someone so outrageously ignorant about the Constitution could ever have been elected to statewide office. But in this instance, in his unofficial role as the id of the religious right, Moore has done a valuable service. He’s made perfectly clear what many religious right leaders seek to downplay and conceal: the religious references they seek to insert, and have inserted, into government speech are not to some vague, ecumenical deist spirit; they are to the god of the Christian religion and the Christian Bible. The religious right may make token noises about inclusiveness when they think the courts are watching – but when people take them at their word and seek equal access for beliefs differing from their own, they invariably go ballistic.

Last May, for instance, right-wing Christians sued for the right to distribute their literature through the Albemarle County, Virginia public schools. But when a secular group, Camp Quest, decided to use the open access thus gained for the same purpose, many of those same right-wing groups erupted in rage, bemoaning how those poor teachers might have to hand out literature to their students which the teachers did not agree with.

Or take the Tampa city council, which had traditionally opened its meetings with prayer. No one complained when this invocation was used for highly inappropriate sectarian sermonizing by, say, ministers who went on tirades against abortion. But when an atheist gave the invocation, half the council stormed out in a huff. One local radio host said, “To allow an atheist the opportunity for an invocation lowers the standards of what an invocation is.” Another resident called the atheist invocation “Satan gaining another foothold”.

There’s also the National Day of Prayer (yes, America has one), which would have been bad enough by itself. But worse, in practice this event has been thoroughly coopted by far-right Christian groups which promote Christianity exclusively, and do not invite members of any other religion to their “official” National Day of Prayer events.

And how could I forget Rajan Zed? The first Hindu priest ever to give the invocation opening a session of the Senate, he was immediately interrupted by a pack of screaming bigots who yelled that his religion was “wicked” and “an abomination”.

It may well be that America’s founders envisioned a sort of shared civic religion that was non-sectarian and founded on a recognition of the moral precepts that all faiths have in common. If the separation of church and state were otherwise guaranteed, I could probably live with government leaders making pronouncements in this vein. But this dogma-free, rationalist religion has been hijacked by Christian zealots who think that civic religion means their religion, and no one else’s, and who are willing to push for that theocratic vision to be enshrined into law. Against this host of intolerance, we freethinkers must insist on a total separation of religion from government – because otherwise the extremists still assaulting America’s Constitution will seize on the slightest crack and attempt to wedge their beliefs in.

UPDATE: One more example that’s too perfect to pass up. Via Ed Brayton, we learn that Pat Robertson’s legal group, the American Center for Law and Justice, which in the past has defended the placement of Christian monuments on public property, is now representing a city arguing that they should not have to give the same accommodation to Summum, a fringe religious group that wants to put up a monument in a park where the Ten Commandments are already present.

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • terrence

    Wouldn’t it be great if someone placed sign-up sheets near the posters, so students could have their choice of placing their trust in Yahweh, Jesus, Allah, Zeus, Vishnu, Odin, Ra, et. al.?

    Dispatch from Illinois: our statehouse idiots can’t come up with a way to keep the buses and trains running, but very efficiently passed a mandatory “moment of silence” for the public schools. A local judge has just issued an injunction.

  • http://spaninquis.wordpress.com/ Spanish Inquisitor

    As always when hearing Roy Moore speak, I remain amazed that someone so outrageously ignorant about the Constitution could ever have been elected to statewide office.

    I remain amazed that he graduated from law school.

  • dave

    I have long been amazed at the …. ummm…. intellectual flexibility of the more “rational” christians. They seem to be willing to go through all sorts of gyrations to make their (obvious) agenda less obvious. Often this becomes so (verbally) watered down, it is difficult to recognize for what it really is, and most people not make the effort to dig in and expose the hidden stuff. The hard-core are doing us freethinkers a service by sorting out the namby-pampies amongst the believers and saving us the trouble. (Dave’s Rules to Live By: #3. There are two kinds of people, the righteous and the unrighteous; and the righteous do the dividing.)

    In a weird sort of way, the belligerent, in-your-face religionists of the Roy Moore School seem more “intellectually honest.” They are quite clear in what they believe (even if they could not be more wrong on the facts), and they make no apologies for it — in fact, they wave it around in order to attract some kind of martyr-status for themselves. They are not making a bunch of convoluted, twisty-logical, half-baked arguments to convince themselves. They are built on solid rock…. so to speak.

    There is no changing their minds (which are impervious to fact, reason, and argument) but they can make the great crowd in the middle squirm when they have to pick a side. We need the Roy Moores in order to easily frame the arguments for the real audience … just can’t let him actually succeed at getting any of his lunacy made into law.

  • Kierkegaardian Christian

    The interesting thing about this question, to me, is that so few people actually read the first amendment, and assume somehow that it prohibits any part of the U.S. Government from establishing any religion. Here:

    Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

    What the first amendment does is to prohibit one particular governmental body – The Congress – from making a certain kind of law.

    It says nothing about what kinds of laws the various states are allowed to make. That is to say, if California wanted to make Christianity the official state religion, that may be illegal for many reasons, but the first amendment to the constitution of the United States of America doesn’t prohibit it at all.

  • andrea

    Fortunately or unfortunately, these “zealots” paint all theists as hypocrites and liars.

  • Polly

    That is to say, if California wanted to make Christianity the official state religion…

    California Constitution Article 1 SEC. 4.
    Free exercise and enjoyment of religion without
    discrimination or preference are guaranteed. This liberty of
    conscience does not excuse acts that are licentious or inconsistent
    with the peace or safety of the State. The Legislature shall make no
    law respecting an establishment of religion.
    A person is not incompetent to be a witness or juror because of
    his or her opinions on religious beliefs.

  • Mrnaglfar

    They certainly aren’t respecting the polytheistic gods with “in god we trust”, so it should be ruled out on automatic religious favoritism. Not like anyone didn’t know exactly what it’s about though. People who claim “in god we trust” was part of this country would do well to know:

    In God We Trust became the official U.S. national motto after the passage of an Act of Congress in 1956.

    In God We Trust was placed on United States coins largely because of the increased religious sentiment existing during the American Civil War. Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase received many appeals from devout Christians throughout the country, urging that the United States recognize God on United States coins. From Treasury Department records, it appears that the first such appeal came in a letter dated November 13, 1861. It was written to Secretary Chase by Reverend M. R. Watkinson, Minister of the Gospel from Ridley Township, Pennsylvania, and read:

    Dear Sir: You are about to submit your annual report to the Congress respecting the affairs of the national finances.
    One fact touching our currency has hitherto been seriously overlooked. I mean the recognition of the Almighty God in some form on our coins.
    You are probably a Christian. What if our Republic were not shattered beyond reconstruction? Would not the antiquaries of succeeding centuries rightly reason from our past that we were a heathen nation? What I propose is that instead of the goddess of liberty we shall have next inside the 13 stars a ring inscribed with the words PERPETUAL UNION; within the ring the allseeing eye, crowned with a halo; beneath this eye the American flag, bearing in its field stars equal to the number of the States united; in the folds of the bars the words GOD, LIBERTY, LAW.
    This would make a beautiful coin, to which no possible citizen could object. This would relieve us from the ignominy of heathenism. This would place us openly under the Divine protection we have personally claimed. From my heart I have felt our national shame in disowning God as not the least of our present national disasters.

    A heathen nation? No citizen could possibly object? Place us under divine protection that we claimed? Disowning god a national disaster?

    As for the national Motto:
    A law was passed by the 84th United States Congress (P.L. 84-140) and approved by the President on July 30, 1956. President Dwight D. Eisenhower approved a joint resolution declaring In God We Trust the national motto of the United States. Some allege that this decision was a reaction to Communism (which was commonly associated with atheism).

  • Curiosis

    Kierkegaardian Christian,

    While the 1st Amendment may only apply as written to the federal government (as is true for the entire Bill of Rights), the 14th Amendment is considered to enforce these rights at all levels of government.

    It would do little good to have a right to freedom of speech if a state of local government could just pass a law to prohibit it.

  • Paul S.

    As a resident of Bakersfield, CA, I am only too aware of the Kern High School District’s vote to put “In God We Trust” into each high school classroom in the district. Just to add to the story a bit, the final display of the motto and other important national documents was a compromise from the original proposal. The original proposal intended to display the “In God We Trust” motto only. It was only after much public outcry that Reverend Vegas decided to include the other national documents into the display. I’m still in shock that the proposal passed at all, but then again, when the electorate votes to put a Christian minister on the high school board, they will get what they deserve. Just one final thought: Reverend Vegas has also stated that he would like to see Intelligent Design taught in high school classes. My personal opinion is that he was testing the waters with this display proposal so he could get a read on the public’s attitude toward a more religiously leaning curriculum. Stay tuned.

  • Paul S.

    Kierkegaardian Christian said,

    What the first amendment does is to prohibit one particular governmental body – The Congress – from making a certain kind of law.

    It says nothing about what kinds of laws the various states are allowed to make. That is to say, if California wanted to make Christianity the official state religion, that may be illegal for many reasons, but the first amendment to the constitution of the United States of America doesn’t prohibit it at all.

    Here’s a humorous take on the whole thing: The Official State Religion List

  • Thumpalumpacus

    Dave,

    An excellent analysis — thanks. Your point is, in a sense, the reason why I prefer Creationists to IDers; there’s no bushwa about them, only their thought processes. (Not to mention that I can carry the debate without cracking a chemistry text).

  • http://www.johnnysstew.com/cool/coolwet.html J

    I doubt it will work (since when did a poster on a classroom wall affect any student’s deeply held personal beliefs?), but it is the intent that’s most important, not the effect.

    Really? I thought that was both your problem and mine with prayer, Ebon.

  • Alex Weaver

    Really? I thought that was both your problem and mine with prayer, Ebon.

    What?

  • http://elliptica.blogspot.com Lynet

    I have to say, I find the conjunction of religion and patriotism particularly sinister. Patriotism is all very well when it involves a love for, and a desire to work to improve, the society you live in, but patriotism that asks no questions and takes the supremacy of ones country on faith — significant word there — is just plain scary. Involving religion in patriotism seems to make it much more likely that unthinking patriotism will be the order of the day.

  • Mrnaglfar

    Lynet,

    Unthinking patriotism? That could never happen….
    It’s not like there are millions of people willing to believe something for which there is admittedly no evidence. I have faith that people know better than that (zing!)

  • Polly

    I have to say, I find the conjunction of religion and patriotism particularly sinister.

    I know two young men who signed up for active duty in the Army in the past three years. I cannot imagine what was going through their minds. I’m just so relieved that they are still alive and well.
    Both come from very strong religious families – one in the Heartland. I think there’s a strong connection between fundamentalism and mindless patriotism.
    Pledging allegiance to a flag is probably not too far removed, in the minds of some, from crossing oneself in front of a giant crucifix.

  • ellen

    It’s not just extremists. My own mom, who belongs to a very liberal group of not-quite-Christians (they believe in god but not in the atonement thing), was recently nostalgic for the days when it was just Xians and Jews and “we celebrated Christmas and they had Hannukah” and it was all good. Now it’s getting so schools and government offices can hardly set up a Christmas tree.

    I had to advise her we shouldn’t discuss that issue, since we were both going to end up angry – I was already getting steamed by that point. My mom is a very intelligent (IQ) woman, but she does not seem to have any clue when it comes to separation of church and state. I think it’s at least partially a generational issue.

  • James Bradbury

    Despite the English flag being St George’s Cross, it doesn’t seem to me that patriotism especially goes with religion in England. In my opinion most of us are even more ambivalent about patriotism than we are about religion. Some people put them out during intl. footy matches, but I can’t remember ever having waved a flag.

  • Kierkegaardian Christian

    The 14th amendment (in part) says, “No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States”

    And it’s true – This would make it the responsibility of the states to enforce any privileges or immunities defined in the 1st amendment – Except that there are no privileges or immunities defined in the 1st amendment. If the 1st amendment had said, “All citizens shall have freedom to practice whatever religion they want” then the 14th amendment would apply.

    What the the 1st amendment provides is not a right or a privilege or an immunity for citizens, but rather a restriction on the power of Congress. Therefore, even if the 14th amendment did apply, it would mean that the states would have to make or enforce no law abridging the right of the citizens to have Congress not make laws about religion.

    Why would the Blaine Amendment (Which said: “No State shall make any law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof”) have been introduced at all if the fourteenth amendment applied to the first amendment?

    All I’m saying is that it’s not a Constitutional issue. Most of the states have put freedom of religion in their own constitutions, and any legal challenge to school boards or whatever has to come from those laws. It would have been a Constitutional issue – if the Blaine Amendment had gotten 4 or 5 more votes in the Senate.

  • Mrnaglfar

    Kierkegaardian Christian,

    It is absolutely, without any question, a constitutional issue.

    No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.

    The 14th states that no state is allowed to make laws abridging privileges and immunities of citizens, nor are they allowed to deny equal protection. These privileges and immunities are the bill of rights, and the first amendment says no laws regarding religion; none in favor of or against. Using a public institution, like a public school, to favor a religious idea (any religious idea) is unconstitutional. “In god we trust” is a religious idea, and clearly a specific religion’s idea. It would be similiar to walking into a school and seeing a sign that says “There is no god”. Also unconstitutional and no equal protection.

  • http://www.cogspace.com/ Katie Molnar

    The workings (or failure thereof) of the mind that does not understand the constitutional nature of the problem…

    When the 1st Amendment was authored, Congress was the only lawmaking body in the nation. When the 14th was added, it was to prevent states from counteracting actions of the Federal government.

    The way this all works is that all powers not explicitly granted to the federal government may be taken up by the state level… but the power of controlling establishment of religion (and free practice thereof) *is* claimed by the Fed, and simultaneously is revoked outright.

    Apparently “Congress shall make no law…” was the clearest way of wording such a concept at the time, as the charge of placing something beyond the purview of law is sort of a complex idea to express. Compare:

    “No governing body in these United States shall make any law…” , which may have been a better wording — but at the time, with Congress being the only lawmaking body, the two were synonymous.

    Unfortunately we can’t dig up the Framers and ask them what they heck they meant by all this, so we’re left to decide which option is best for our time. With thousands of mutually incompatible religions practiced in our nation, the only sensible response is to purge it from the public stage entirely, as attempting to represent every religion equally would be an illogical and extremely complex burden.

    Imagine if every meeting of Congress began not with a prayer from the Bible, but with several thousand prayers, spells, chants, songs, meditations, yoga poses, and alien communication via LEDs wired onto hats.

    It’s nonsensical in the extreme. Even if it were possible to accommodate every imaginable religion in public spaces, we’d be spending hours doing rain dances and our streets would overflow with a million versions of holiday decorations…

    It’s supreme lunacy.

    So! The only way for this to work is to prohibit it outright. Since giving everyone a chance is not even possible, then nobody gets one.

    It scares me to think that a few hundreds years from now, historians will say “people at the time believed…” the lunacy expressed by the loudest morons. They will (perhaps rightfully) think no better of us than we of the people who thought the Earth was flat… or perhaps those poor fools who still do.

  • tom locklear

    I’m just wodering if any considerable group of beleivers or non beleivers could ever propose a society of people who expressed daily gratitude for their existence. And from that point could you create any connection? The great thing about being an atheist is that you are still a part of the question. The trapping of any formalized religion is self imposed constraint. The birthplace of opportunity is a question. Practise and teach gratitude, I say, because the sea refuses no river.

  • http://www.johnnysstew.com/cool/coolwet.html J

    Ebon: I doubt it will work (since when did a poster on a classroom wall affect any student’s deeply held personal beliefs?), but it is the intent that’s most important, not the effect.

    Me: Really? I thought that was both your problem and mine with prayer, Ebon.
    (I have no idea why my font just got big there for a second)

    Sorry, I should have been more clear. What I meant was your claim that intent is more important than effect. I suppose it sort of is in this case, but doesn’t that clash with your excellent post the other day about the rain prayers in Georgia? I’m sure if you really pigeonholed the governor and his supporters, they might admit, “Well, I don’t know if this will really get us some rain, but it’s a good spiritual exercise! It’s our intention that’s important.” Heck, that’s the undergirding mentality behind a lot of the culture wars: Posing and symbol-invoking that makes certain people feel good (or bad) and thus gets them to ignore actual meat-and-potatoes political and economic issues (war, poverty).

    Still, the crux of my atheism and–I had thought–yours too was an insistence that we actually examine the effects of, say, people’s prayers, of “miracles”, of widespread societal belief in the supernatural. Is Islam really a “religion of peace” insofar as Muslims are statistically more peaceful than non-Muslims? Does intercessory prayer for sick people actually make them less sick or does it just give the praying people a fuzzy feeling inside, feeling like they’re “supporting” their sick friend?

    This is what I meant when I asked why you thought intent was more important than effect. If you meant just specifically in this case, then nevermind: I agree.

  • http://www.johnnysstew.com/cool/coolwet.html J

    Oh and Kierkegaardian Christian: I have to agree with the others here. You’re ignoring a whole bunch of other Amendments, of state constitutions that often completely mimic the federal one, and of centuries of judicial decisions at every level that say, unequivocally, that what binds the federal government binds state governments too. This has been a huge struggle in American history, in government, in courts, and even in the Civil War: The gradual, halting movement away from just being a confederation of separate, autonomous states, into a really unified country, in which federal laws trump conflicting state ones.

    I dunno, maybe in another century of this sort of change we could switch our name to the Federal States of America or the Unified States of America.

  • LindaJoy

    Katie- you don’t need to dig up the Founders to find out what they meant by the Establishment Clause. If you read the writings and decisions of James Madison, he made very clear what it meant. So did Jefferson and a host of others both in the Congress and in the State legislatures when the Bill of Rights was being debated. Also look into Madison and Jefferson’s efforts to keep the newly founded Un. of Va. free of any influence by clergy or religious doctrine in the staffing and curriculum of the school.

  • http://goddesscassandra.blogspot.com Antigone

    Kierkegaardian Christian:

    This Supreme Court case might be of particular intrest to you, since you seem unclear of the nature of incorporation via the 14th Amendment and how it applies to the state:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Everson_v._Board_of_Education

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org/ Ebonmuse

    I’ve updated the post with one more perfect example I learned about today.

  • Mrnaglfar

    One more example that’s too perfect to pass up. Via Ed Brayton, we learn that Pat Robertson’s legal group, the American Center for Law and Justice, which in the past has defended the placement of Christian monuments on public property, is now representing a city arguing that they should not have to give the same accommodation to Summum, a fringe religious group that wants to put up a monument in a park where the Ten Commandments are already present.

    I imagine the argument for this goes something along the lines of states that have tried to pass laws outlawing interracial marriage. Those laws were claimed to be “content neutral” because they punished both parties equally, in that case, black people and whites who liked black people.

    I can picture a similiar argument coming for the ten commmandments. “People have equal access to the 10 commandments, those who believe in them and those who don’t, and if the state wants to refuse other monuments, that’s their right as a state (i.e. the point raised earlier about how some people feel states don’t need to abide by federal laws)”. It’s not a position of defending religion, as some have been led to believe, but it’s a campaign to defend christianity, which many of those same people probably wouldn’t object to, but whether they do or not, it’s a clear violation of the constituional seperation of church and state.


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