All others pay cash: The Shepherd-Balkin Amendment

In other church-state news yesterday, the House of Representatives voted 396-9 to reaffirm that America’s “national motto” is still our national motto.

That motto, officially adopted in 1956, is “In God We Trust.” It replaced what had been up until then America’s unofficial motto of “E pluribus unum.” Replacing an affirmation of unity amidst diversity with an expression of sectarian faith is, generally speaking, not a Good Thing.* But this symbolic step backwards, redundantly reaffirmed last night by the House of Representatives, hasn’t wrought much damage because frankly the designation “official motto” is almost completely meaningless.

If you’re wondering how such a measure could possibly be constitutional, that’s why. Because it’s meaningless. The House vote was a “concurrent resolution,” which is Congress-speak for “stuff we vote on instead of things that matter.” The resolution is toothless, lacking the force of law. Phil Plait is correct that Congress making non-laws respecting the establishment of religion still violates the spirit of the First Amendment, and that lawmakers voting for such measures are not doing a very good job of fulfilling their oath to defend the Constitution. The symbolism of this sort of thing is not good, but that’s all it is — some not-good, but hollow and mostly meaningless, symbolism. The Supreme Court even ruled that this is all it is, deciding in 1984 that the replacement motto had “lost through rote repetition any significant religious content.”

That Supreme Court ruling, by the way, does have the force of law. So if you choose to interpret “In God We Trust” as a reminder of the ultimate sovereignty of God or some such, then legally speaking, you’re interpreting it incorrectly. The official, legal meaning of our official motto has nothing to do with God, but is something more like “That thing on the coins, blah-di blah blah blah.”**

For the record, the nine representatives voting against this sectarian symbolism included eight Democrats and one Republican, Justin Amash of Michigan, who explained his dissent this way:

The fear that unless “In God We Trust” is displayed throughout the government, Americans will somehow lose their faith in God, is a dim view of the profound religious convictions many citizens have. The faith that inspired many of the Founders of this country — the faith I practice — is stronger than that. Trying to score political points with unnecessary resolutions should not be Congress’s priority. I voted no.

That’s how I would have voted, too, had I been a member of Congress — unless I had been able to convince my colleagues to support my amendment to the measure. I’m calling this the Shepherd-Balkin Amendment, named after storyteller Jean Shepherd, author of In God We Trust: All Others Pay Cash, and constitutional scholar Jack Balkin, who was the first commentator I read affirming the “jumbo coin” strategy I’m adopting here.

Yesterday’s nonbinding resolution “encourages the public display of the national motto in all public buildings, public schools, and other government institutions.” I would take that further.

My amendment would encourage: “the public display of the national motto on 2,000 $1 billion platinum coins to be minted by the Secretary of the Treasury and to be distributed throughout the nation for the repair, maintenance and construction of public buildings, public schools, public roads, public bridges, public pipelines, public employment rolls and other government institutions.”

With the Shepherd-Balkin Amendment included, I would enthusiastically vote for the resolution the House passed last night.

Yes, the hollow symbolism of the measure violates the spirit of the Constitution. But in exchange for $2 trillion for infrastructure, teachers, librarians, police, emergency personnel and safety inspectors, I’d be willing to swallow a little harmful symbolism. (In that spirit, I’ll further suggest that those 2,000 $1 billion platinum coins should bear the likeness of Ronald Reagan.)

- – - – - – - – - – - -

* The only people who think it’s a Good Thing are those who belong to the sect in question. Ah, but who is that? And are all those who claim to be members of this elevated sect really members of it? Can they prove it? How can they prove it?

Historically speaking, the answers to that last question always involve duress. Ultimately, the only way to really, truly prove one’s membership to the satisfaction of whatever authorities are entrusted with deciding such questions is by not floating when cast into a lake with stones tied to one’s feet. This is why it’s important not to entrust authorities with such questions — why church and state must be separate.

** Reason No. 2 for the strict separation of church and state. Any officially approved, privileged or established sect will ultimately become nothing more than a vague civil religion existing only to affirm the legitimacy of those officials who make it official. But then, for many American teavangelicals, “a vague civil religion existing only to affirm the legitimacy of those officials who make it official” isn’t viewed as a Bad Thing.

  • WingedBeast

    This isn’t the only time the meaninglessness of the dominant religion has been put forth as the reason for its display.  Scalia once argued that the use of crosses as gravemarkers for memorials and the graves of soldiers was constitutionally acceptable regardless of the religion of those memorialized because crosses were essentially used just as abstract markers, not as religious icons.

    But, no sooner is something established with the defense of meaninglessness than does someone use that “meaningless” something as a purpose to do something meaningful.

    During the youtube debate in the Democratic Primaries in 2008, one of the video-questions had someone holding up a quarter and asking how the Democratic Contenders would follow the spirit of that national motto on the quarter.  “In God We Trust”

    Tell me that the national motto of “In God We Trust” doesn’t provide cover for any number of anti-gay, anti-muslim, anti-abortion, or anti-atheist positions.

    “In God We Trust” is also used to justify the claim that America is a Christian nation based upon Christian values, which is a backhanded way of saying that non-Christians aren’t as American as the rest of us.

    It’s amazing how the dominant religion has this convenience based shifting quantity of meaning.  It’s absolutely weightless to put into position but becomes the immovable object when challenged.

    I will say to Congress E Pluribus Unum or gtfo.

  • Leo Tokarski

    I was about to make a snarky post about how no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t find anything inherently false about the national motto having lost all meaning through rote repetition.

    Then I had to go and read WingedBeast’s comment.

    As always, reality destroys any attempt at forms of humor that start with the letter S.

  • Lori

     The symbolism of this sort of thing is not good, but that’s all it is — some not-good, but hollow and mostly meaningless, symbolism. The Supreme Court even ruled that this is all it is, deciding in 1984 that the replacement motto had “lost through rote repetition any significant religious content.”  

     

    Seconding WingedBeast’s point about it not being quite as hollow and meaningless as one would hope. Also, I wouldn’t cite Lynch V Donnelly as proof of anything. It’s yet another one of those cases where the court decided the outcome it wanted (allow a clearly unconstitutional motto to stand), backtracked from there to create the appearance of a justification and then pretended they had reasoned forwards from legal principles and the process just happened to lead them to the conclusion that didn’t piss off the Right. 

    It was no Bush v Gore or Citizens United, but it was not the SCOTUS’ finest hour either.

  • http://mordicai.livejournal.com Mordicai

    It is killing me that I can’t reshare this post on Google Reader.

  • http://twitter.com/FearlessSon FearlessSon

    The thing that burns me up about the “national motto” is not that it is sectarian in spirit and not that it is meaningless in practice.  It is that, like WingedBeast said, people try to force meaning upon it, and they do so out of willful ignorance.  

    The claim that the motto is proof that the United States is a “Christian nation” can only be based on ignorance of the motto’s origins and ignorance of the context of those origins.  Any study of it will refute such a claim, and indeed that is how the SCOTUS arrived at the ruling they did about its meaninglessness in the first place.  

    Of course, a lot of politically active values voters have a lot of practice willfully ignoring context and meaning of things they pre-port to hold as the basis of their personal faith, so I guess I should not find it so surprising.  That does not mean that I find it any less frustrating.  

  • http://mordicai.livejournal.com Mordicai

    It is a good thing that that book you Christians like so much doesn’t say anything about taking the Lord’s name in vain, or those Representatives sure would have egg on their faces.

  • Mr. Heartland

    I don’t know what you’re insinuating with this ‘Lord’s name in vain’ talk.  Empty, passive-aggressive claims of Christian ownership of society are the most worthwhile use of God’s name there could possibly be. 

  • http://apocalypsereview.wordpress.com/ Invisible Neutrino

    I will say to Congress E Pluribus Unum or gtfo.

    There’s this film on the Prelinger Archives I forgot the name of, but the solider in it, he pulls out a coin and specially notes the “E Pluribus Unum” on it, and uses it as an illustration of how “all Americans need to be in the war together”.

    Wonder what he would have been able to do with “In God We Trust”, since spiritual faith counts for little if it can’t beat bullets and bombs.

  • Anonymous

    Editor’s note: Jack M. Balkin is Knight Professor of Constitutional Law at Yale Law School. (from the link): Does that make him Sir Jack Balkin?But I just wanted to throw into the ring the fact that I come from a country with an established religious sect (Episcopalian) and my grandmother came from another (Lutheran). And yet in practice Britain and Denmark are among the most functionally secular countries on earth (The Bishop of London getting annoyed at the Occupy people notwithstanding). Can somebody explain to me how you get to the position where you have countries with state religions but most people are, I’d guess, agnostic and nobody cares about the established churches, whereas you have another country where they’ve made a sensible decision to keep sectarianism out of politics, and where most people are believers, but one faction has decided they ought to be privileged? Because maybe the founders should just have left the Congregationalists in charge in Massachusetts and the Anglicans in Virginia and the Catholics in Maryland, and perhaps they’d all have shut up by now.

  • CharityB

    I just wanted to say that “Knight Professor” sounds like an incredibly badass job.

  • Richard Hershberger

    “Any officially approved, privileged or established sect will ultimately
    become nothing more than a vague civil religion existing only to affirm
    the legitimacy of those officials who make it official.”

    Quite so.  I have long held that the surest way to kill off a religion is to establish it as the state religion, then wait a century or two.  What you will have at that point may maintain some of the outward forms of the religion, but the substance will be long gone.

  • http://mistformsquirrel.deviantart.com/ JJohnson

    I’m imagining a suit of full plate painted to look like a tweed suit, a shield painted to look like the Milton course textbook I had in college, and a sword with a stylized quill for a hilt.

    This is awesome.

  • WingedBeast

    I’m kind of imagining someone who defeats dragons by giving them a detailed explanation of why their biology is impossible.  It takes several hours of lecture and a lot of visual aids.  The successful ones know how to engage the student in the topic.

  • Haelloren

    If all you need is the outward form to bolster your own political authority, that seems fine to me. Especially if takes centuries for it to wither away like that.

  • http://blog.trenchcoatsoft.com Ross

    But Jesus, knowing their evil intent, said, “You hypocrites, why are you trying to trap me? Show me the money used for paying the tax.” They brought him a dollar, and he asked them, “Whose image is this? And whose inscription?”
    “Um. Well, it says ‘in God We Trust’ on the back,” they replied

    Then he said to them, “Oh. Right. Well then, I guess this belongs to my dad. I’ll give it to him when I see him.” 

    When they heard this, they were amazed. So they left him and went away. But later they had to walk home, since he had kept their dollar and verily they did not have exact change for the bus.

  • http://mistformsquirrel.deviantart.com/ JJohnson

    That reminds me of The Flight of Dragons (animated movie) a little bit Fun movie that.  (I mean it’s not precisely analogous or anything, but it brings up the memory so…)

  • http://twitter.com/FearlessSon FearlessSon

    Can I put “In Dr. Who We Trust” on my money? 

  • WingedBeast

    The problem is… which Doctor?

    Tom Baker?  Rock on!  Collin Baker?  roll off.  David Tenant?  Yeah, I can trust him to get all mopey.  Tom Smith?  He seems alright.

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

    I would like those who stridently advocate the motto to indicate how, exactly, America is trusting in God. Cos it looks really a lot more like it’s trusting in money and bombs…

    ————————-

    My own country’s motto is pretty naff and meaningless, too, so I’m on no high ground vis-a-vis meaningful mottos.

  • P J Evans

     There’s a well-known computer science text that traditionally has a dragon with a knight on its cover. I guess that makes the professors using that book ‘knight professors’. (It’s called the ‘dragon book’, though.)

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

    And yet in practice Britain and Denmark are among the most functionally secular countries on earth

    I would like to challenge that claim.

    Edit: I missed the “among”. Was about the froth about the Lords Spiritual, which definitely makes Britain less functionally secular than Australia and New Zealand, for example. But “among”, OK. Carry on.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_5V7WB5LWONXO22R6D4CYEZGYFE Alan

    Strangely, I find it utterly proper that in 1956, more than 150 years after the founding of this nation, Congress changed our motto to “In God We Trust” and plastered it on our currency for the sole purpose of thumbing our noses as Communism. It is consistent with my long-held belief that America is in no sense a Christian nation and that claiming otherwise is a blasphemy. This nation plainly worships Mammon but deludes itself into thinking that Mammon is Christ. We inscribe the word “God” on the face of the only god we worship.

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

    I was about to offer Charity an internet for the Knight Professor comment but then your line about change for the bus cracked me up. (I read it in Rowan Atkinson’s voice)

    Good show, everyone!

  • Dan W

     A meaningless vote about a moronic motto. I guess Congress has nothing more important to do. No infrastructure bills or other related legislation, no sir! (/sarcasm)

    In any case, I’d love to see the politicians in the various branches of government pull their heads out of their collective asses and stop pretending that having “In God We Trust” as the motto and on our money and “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance is somehow anything other than unconstitutional violation of the First Amendment. Until they do, I’ll keep using a pen to cross out those words and write the old motto, “E Pluribus Unum” (out of many, one) on my dollar bills. There’s still much more to be done to make the government secular like it was supposed to be.

  • renniejoy

    OT- Happy Birthday to Raj…

  • Consumer Unit 5012

    Quite so.  I have long held that the surest way to kill off a religion is to establish it as the state religion, then wait a century or two.  What you will have at that point may maintain some of the outward forms of the religion, but the substance will be long gone.

    Thanks a TON, Constantine.

  • Anonymous

    I kind of wish that concurrent resolutions were submitted to the President even if they don’t have the force of law; that way, if I were President, I could veto them just for the lulz.

  • http://profiles.google.com/marc.k.mielke Marc Mielke

    On another forum we discussed family mottos as part of our “Game of Thrones” discussion. The one that wins forever is a shield picturing a man holding aloft a mug of ale with the motto “In This We Trust”.

  • Matri

    a shield picturing a man holding aloft a mug of ale with the motto “In This We Trust”.

    “To alcohol! The cause of, and solution to, all of life’s problems!”
     - Homer Simpson

  • Rikalous

    On another forum we discussed family mottos as part of our “Game of
    Thrones” discussion. The one that wins forever is a shield picturing a
    man holding aloft a mug of ale with the motto “In This We Trust”.

    Ours is “In Peace Or War”. I don’t even know if that means anything.

  • Tonio

    The official, legal meaning of our official motto has nothing to do with
    God, but is something more like “That thing on the coins, blah-di blah blah blah.”**

    The Court was essentially giving normative status to monotheism in principle (and Christianity in practice). For religious freedom to have any real meaning, a society cannot have a normal or default religion. Otherwise, such a society treats other religions and their members as though there’s something wrong with them. There are many small towns where atheists remain in the closet out of fear of their neighbors, which isn’t religious freedom at all.

  • Anonymous

    This list of national mottos is quite enlightening. An awful lot of them feature God in some role or other, and most of the rest seem to be riffing either on “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity” or on “Unity is Strength”. Some of the variants seem decidedly sinister, to me at least.

    I’m taken with the Luxembourg motto: “We wish to remain what we are”. And Bermuda: “Quo fata ferunt”, which Wikipedia translates as “Whither the fates carry us”, but is obviously really the Latin for “Whatever, dude.” These seem to me to express healthy but affectionate sentiments towards your country, whereas “Unity, Dignity, Work” (Chad) is going to end in tears. Sensible countries like Portugal don’t bother with a motto at all.

    Britain doesn’t have a motto, but the Queen has two: in England it’s “Dieu et Mon Droit”, which is old French for “God says I can do what I like”. In Scotland it’s “Nemo me impune lacessit”, Latin for “Don’t push your luck, son”.* Fortunately both of these fall into the “That thing on the coins” category. But let them serve as a warning…

    *Extremely loose translations.

  • Matthew Funke

    Theodore Roosevelt, a somewhat devout Christian, was opposed to the idea of putting “In God We Trust” on money.  He wrote a letter published in the New York Times November 11, 1907, to explain that  besmirching God’s name by putting it on something as common and crass as money borders on blasphemy.  A quote:

    A beautiful and solemn sentence such as the one in question should be treated and uttered only with that fine reverence which necessarily implies a certain exaltation of spirit.  My own feeling in the matter is due to my very firm conviction that to put such a motto on coins, or to use it in any kindred manner, not only does no good, but does positive harm, and is in effect irreverence, which comes dangerously close to sacrilege.

    Take that for whatever it’s worth.

  • http://twitter.com/FearlessSon FearlessSon

    The problem is… which Doctor?

    Does it matter?  The continued resurrection of our Time Lord and Savior is central to our faith in him.  

  • Anonymous

    In Scotland it’s “Nemo me impune lacessit”, Latin for “Don’t push your luck, son”.

    Isn’t that actually Latin for “Piss me off and I’ll wall you up in a cellar after inviting you to try my best single malt?”

  • Anonymous

    Speaking of the British monarchy, there’s also the good old Honi soit qui mal y pense, which loosely works out as “you’re the one with the dirty mind”.

    Speaking of an established faith, St Paul’s has changed course entirely on the Occupy protest (basically the moment Rowan++ got back from that interdenominational bash he was attending) and is now supporting the protestors.  So the Stock Exchange has backed down from legal proceedings as well.  Also, I’m no longer cringing in embarrasment for my church, so that’s good too.

    I do find it a bit awkward when people say things like Fred’s

    “Any officially approved, privileged or established sect will ultimately become nothing more than a vague civil religion existing only to affirm the legitimacy of those officials who make it official.”

    or Richard Hershberger’s

    Quite so. I have long held that the surest way to kill off a religion is to establish it as the state religion, then wait a century or two. What you will have at that point may maintain some of the outward forms of the religion, but the substance will be long gone.

    Because, well, the Anglican church is still here, you know.  Not killed off yet.  And as far as many of us are concerned, it’s quite a lot more than a ‘vague civil religion’.  Sheepish, confused, internally conflicted, a mess of compromise and muddled understanding – yes, I’ll take that.  But that doesn’t mean it’s shallow, insubstantial or not of vibrant importance to many many people. Also, we have cake.

    Hi again everyone!  I’ve been lurking for months, but finally got my work computer fixed so I can chat here again.  Not to mention I’m joining the ranks of the unemployed at Christmas (someone in HR thought I could do with a nice little gift) so I expect to have lots of time to contribute in the New Year.

  • The Lodger

    Or, you could write in the government’s real operating principle:

    “Money Talks.”

  • The Lodger

    Glad to hear the Archbishop has weighed in on the side of OL. I’d conplained about his non-position in another thread.

    Hope you can continue to contribute from home after Christmas (rotten timing, that.)

  • http://twitter.com/FearlessSon FearlessSon

    Because, well, the Anglican church is still here, you know.  Not killed off yet.  And as far as many of us are concerned, it’s quite a lot more than a ‘vague civil religion’.  Sheepish, confused, internally conflicted, a mess of compromise and muddled understanding – yes, I’ll take that.  But that doesn’t mean it’s shallow, insubstantial or not of vibrant importance to many many people. Also, we have cake.

    Yes, but I doubt that members of the Anglican church form quite the same kind of voting block that “values voters” do in the U.S.  They tend to get used by politicians to really muck up our government.  For example, one of the primary reasons Dubya got elected the first time was due to the evangelical block coming out in droves to elect a “born again” candidate.  For them, evident competence was less important than a politician being of the “right” faith.  We see this happening again with the Republican party primaries this election cycle.  Politicians like Mitt Romney have a decent chance at the White House, but because he is of the “wrong” faith he is less likely to win enough of the evangelical voting block to actually run.  

  • Lori

     Not to mention I’m joining the ranks of the unemployed at Christmas (someone in HR thought I could do with a nice little gift) so I expect to have lots of time to contribute in the New Year.  

    I’m sorry. May your period of unemployment be short and your next job wonderful. 

  • Consumer Unit 5012

    Or, you could write in the government’s real operating principle:

    “Money Talks.”

    Honesty at last!  (What would that be in Latin?)

    Or put on the damn shades and see what it REALLY says:

    “THIS IS YOUR GOD”.

  • Anonymous

    Thanks for the good wishes, Lori and The Lodger.  It’s not exactly the most frabjous thing that’s ever happened to me, but I am keenly aware of how lucky I am – I have substantial savings to draw on, a nice padded out CV and parents who are willing to let me stay at home while I get the next thing sorted out.  Luxury enough, in fact, that I’m seriously considering taking the chance to try to start my own bookshop.  It can’t be any less fun than accountancy, anyway.*

    Yes, but I doubt that members of the Anglican church form quite the same kind of voting block that “values voters” do in the U.S.  They tend to get used by politicians to really muck up our government.  For example, one of the primary reasons Dubya got elected the first time was due to the evangelical block coming out in droves to elect a “born again” candidate.  For them, evident competence was less important than a politician being of the “right” faith.  We see this happening again with the Republican party primaries this election cycle.  Politicians like Mitt Romney have a decent chance at the White House, but because he is of the “wrong” faith he is less likely to win enough of the evangelical voting block to actually run.

    True, FearlessSon.  It is a tremendously fortunate accident of history – or series of accidents – that’s defanged the sectarian voting blocs in the UK.  It’s part of what makes US politics so interesting (and occasionally disturbing) from this side of the pond; there are dozens of shared cultural factors, mixed in with things like this which are just alien. 

    *I mentioned this to the boyfriend and a couple of days later a copy of The Little Book of Calm turned up in the post.  Which is hardly fair, as he looks far more like Bill Bailey than I do.

  • http://twitter.com/FearlessSon FearlessSon

    True, FearlessSon.  It is a tremendously fortunate accident of history – or series of accidents – that’s defanged the sectarian voting blocs in the UK.  It’s part of what makes US politics so interesting (and occasionally disturbing) from this side of the pond; there are dozens of shared cultural factors, mixed in with things like this which are just alien. 

    Part of the history to that, as I understand it, came because a lot of the more fundie types were pretty much run out of England.  I suspect that Oliver Cromwell might have had something to do with the widespread desire to keep Puritans out of positions of influence.  So a lot of them ended up migrating to the colonies in the New World, some of them with the intent to start their own theocracies.  When the United States constitution was formed, it was done with an explicit guarantee that there would be no state-recognized religion, nor limitations on private religious expression.  This was in part precisely because the fundie types wanted to avoid getting kicked out by a more mainstream sect, and because the more mainstream sects wanted to avoid fundies trying to tell them what to do.  Everyone was happy with it (more or less.)  

    However, history has been kind of funny since then.  Places that were established as Puritan communities have, in the few centuries since their founding, turned into some of the most secular regions in the U.S.  And people who were part of less serious sects, have become increasingly serious about trying to shift the government to favor their sect over others.  I suspect that a lot of this parallels a cultural rift more than a strictly theological one though, as many religious conflicts tend to be.  The American Civil War* was, at its heart, about a conflict of cultures more than anything else.  Though that war ended well over a century ago, the struggle continues.  To many, their religion is understandably an important part of their culture, but they see that as one face of a united front in a long struggle to establish which culture in the U.S. should be the dominant one.  

    * Some places in the south still prefer to call that conflict “The War Between The States” rather than “The Civil War”.  A civil war implies a conflict within a single country, but to them, the south successfully removed itself from the Union, formed the Confederate States, and was then conquered by an invading northern power.  Which shows just how much of the legacy of this culture struggle still lingers.  

  • Anonymous

    Oliver Cromwell probably had something to do with it, but another factor was definitely the desire of the Powers That Were to stay in control, and a widespread fear of the sectarian power struggles that led to so many people being burned at the stake under the Tudors.  The real sectarian conflict was seen as the fight against Catholicism – and that lingers in a lot of little ways (Guy Fawkes night, the ban on any monarch marrying a Catholic, the fact that Tony Blair waited until after he was no longer Prime Minister to convert to Catholicism). Other Protestant groups, and even other religions, were more likely to be tolerated (hence we could have a Jewish PM over a century ago, but still no Catholic PM today).

    In a way, the identification of the monarch with the state religion must have played a big part: as other interest groups leeched the actual power away from the head of state, they automatically pulled it away from the religious identity that the head of state typified. It can’t have hurt either that there were all these convenient colonies for the different sects to head out to.

    Interesting thought, actually: the Catholic Relief Act in the UK didn’t pass until 1829 (achieving Catholic emancipation, removing many of the laws that discriminated against Catholics – link to Wikipedia), well over a century after the Stuart restoration (1660), nearly two centuries after the Civil War.  So on that timescale it’s hardly surprising that the US still hasn’t settled the culture struggle from a Civil War that took place only a century and a half ago.


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