I’m sitting here listening to NPR’s coverage of the 9/11 memorial ceremonies. If I had a dollar for every time the official speakers at these official events has mentioned God or heaven or quoted a Bible verse, I’d be rich. The president himself led in prayer and read a Bible passage at the memorial for Flight 93 in Pennsylvania. What is this?
I was taught growing up that we live in a secular nation where Christian speech is persecuted. This is bullshit. After leaving my parents’ home, I found a surprisingly – and even officially – Christian nation.
Our state and national legislatures have chaplains and open sessions with prayer. “In God We Trust” is on every piece of money I touch, and our pledge declares that we are “one nation under God.” The current and previous president have both quoted from the Bible in official speeches, evoked God and faith, and repeated “God bless” at every event where they speak like a dogma. We are not supposed to be an officially Christian nation, but you know what? In practice, we are.
Now, I get that most Americans are Christians, and that Christianity is part of our national heritage, but isn’t the government supposed to refrain from endorsing any sort of religion? Isn’t that what freedom or religion is about? Beyond that, isn’t that the very foundation of freedom of religion? Great Britain has an established national church, the Anglican Church. We’re supposed to be different. The government is supposed to stay out of religion and let people pick what to believe for themselves. It’s not doing that.
As an atheist, sitting here listening to radio coverage of the memorials, I feel like I am not represented. I feel like I am somehow on the outside, somehow less American, because of my lack of belief. As government officials – my government officials – use official speeches to evoke a God I don’t believe exists, I feel alone. I feel left out and forgotten. What about Americans who do not believe, what about them? What about Americans who do not believe in the Judeo-Christian God, what about them? I don’t get it! Can’t they see that this only builds national unity by alienating those on the outside?
When my daughter starts school, I’ll have to deal with the whole pledge of allegiance thing. I’ll have to explain to my daughter that her nation – her nation – officially endorses belief in God. Sally will have to decide what to do. Will she stand and say the pledge, stand and say all but that phrase, stand and remain silent altogether, or sit and remain silent? I have heard stories of the phrase “under God” in the pledge being used to humiliate atheist students, or at the very least setting them up for accusations of being un-American. Official school prayer was banned in 1962 and 1963 because students outside of the Judeo-Christian religious tradition faced just these problems. If the pledge creates problems for Sally, and wants to sue to remove the words “under God,” I will do everything I can do to make this happen.
I look back on what I was taught about the persecution of Christians and the secular nature of our government, and I shake my head. It’s simply not true. The reality is that the government I had been taught was wholly secular in reality endorses belief in a God I don’t believe in, and is thus complicit in the building of a national identity that leaves me out entirely.