The Radical Fairness of Opting In

swearing inThe week before Adam’s official swearing in, the other members of the Town Board fondly ribbed him about taking the oath. They knew his wife was an atheist, and someone quipped that when I held the Bible for him to swear on it would burst into flames.

Adam doesn’t mind being teased, but the joking did introduce an uncomfortable prospect: Would he feel comfortable swearing on a Bible? He was neither a Christian nor a fan of mixing church with state. Could he use a different book, like maybe the U.S. Constitution?

We had only the flimsy paperback copy that the ACLU sends in its fundraising appeals: it could easily be palmed for a magic trick. On New Year’s Day, preparing to leave for Town Hall, I slipped it into my coat pocket.

It was my dress-up coat; hung-over but game, I had cleaned the mascara smudges from my eyelids, re-curled my hair, and donned my pearls in an effort to look wifely. I wanted to show respect for the occasion. And in this respect, I had my doubts about the bendy founding document in my pocket. It didn’t look as important as a Bible (or a TV Guide. Or that little “start here” manual that comes with your new cell phone). So although I thought it was unlikely Adam would be required to swear on a Bible, I feared that his opting out would turn into a thing, perhaps even a story for the local paper. Should that really be Adam’s first public act as an elected official?

All of which is why I, your friendly outspoken atheist, said to my besuited husband on our way out the door, “Oh just use the damn Bible. Who cares?”

Do you make a point or do you stay quiet? On the drive over I thought about a friend of ours who grew up in our upstate New York town but now lives in Texas. He coaches youth football in his spare time, and he emailed me after the first scrimmage of the season this fall. “Before I knew what was happening,” he wrote, “one of the coaches starting leading the team in prayer.” Our friend is not a crusading atheist; he’s just an extremely logical, fair-minded person. Also, apparently, he is brave. He sent me the text he wrote to the prayer-leading coach:

. . . no offense to you or the other coaches, but I think we’ll leave the prayers to the privacy of each player, out of respect to players of all creeds. Guys can do whatever they choose before or after we gather as a team. Yeah, I know, I’m one of the few footballers who thinks that prayer and football aren’t a good mix.

A big strong guy with a voice that carries, an impressive job, and no lack of confidence, our friend is the head coach of this team. But I bet he put a lot of thought into exactly what level of explanation, supplication, and self-deprecation should go into that text. Results were mixed. Although the other coach, the prayer leader, bowed to my friend’s authority as head coach, said the request was offensive: “prayer is always optional,” and people “have the freedom not to bow their heads.”

Prayer is always optional. True: in this country, there’s almost always a way to opt out. In a well-publicized case last year, Air Force higher-ups at first refused to let an airman reenlist because he crossed “so help me God” off his re-enlistment form; eventually, they relented. Most states let you affirm rather than swear an oath; a 1961 U.S. Supreme Court decision (Torcaso v. Watkins) guaranteed the right to oath-related conscientious objection. States that still have “religious test” oaths on their books tend not to make a fuss if someone opts out: they know they don’t have a constitutional leg to stand on.

We arrived, shook some hands, and took our seats. Just as I started to get anxious, the first oath was administered: to a town Justice, who would then administer the rest of the oaths. His wife stood beside him, chic and smiling, one hand clasping . . . the other. The Judge raised his right hand, put his left hand by his side, and repeated:

I, ______, do solemnly swear that I will support the Constitution of the United States, and the Constitution of the State of New York, and that I will faithfully discharge the duties of the office of _________, according to the best of my ability.

Wait! What? No Bible? No “so help me God”? Just a promise to uphold the federal and state constitutions and do your job as well as you can?

Shortly thereafter, the Judge swore in the Town Supervisor. He brought his own Bible, hefty and worn, festooned with post-its. His wife held it as he swore the same oath everyone else did, except when his was over, he added “so help me God” at the end, unprompted.

That’s it! I thought: opt in, not opt out. Of course! It’s so simple, so  . . . fair. If you want to express your religious devotion, if you want to bring God in as a witness, go right ahead. The believer—specifically, the believer who want his beliefs to be a part of the civic occasion—should be the one who stands out. God would probably approve:

“Therefore come out from them and be separate,” says the Lord. (2 Corinthians 6:17)

Be not thou ashamed of the testimony of our Lord. (2 Timothy 1:8)

And, on the off chance that such public declaration invites judgment, ridicule, or worse:

Blessed are those who have been persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5:10)

Opting in wouldn’t keep my friend’s football players from praying; it would just keep non-Christian kids from having to make the awkward—and, on a Texas football field, possibly even risky—decision to opt out. In fact that’s what he suggested to his fellow coach in a follow-up text:

No one is standing in the way of anyone on the team worshiping as they wish. But . . . it won’t be a part of team activities. I think an “opt in” system is much more respectful to all than an “opt out” system. No one could realistically walk away from the team once the prayer started, but nothing would stop anyone who wants to pray from gathering privately to do it before team activities.

I wasn’t rereading my email at Town Hall, I swear. I looked up his exact words later. But I was thinking of him as I silently thanked his native and my adoptive state of New York, which afforded me the pleasure of standing by my husband as he swore an unambiguously heartfelt oath. Good old, rational New York State.

Then we all stood for the Pledge of Allegiance and I had to decide whether to say the “under God” part or opt out.

 

 

 

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4 thoughts on “The Radical Fairness of Opting In

  1. I love this, especially as I was in exactly the same position with many of the same thoughts. And yes, I love what your friend said to the coaches and yes rational NY! Sigh : ) You say it so well.

    • Kate Cohen says:

      Thank you! It seems so obvious, and yet, when not neutral becomes the default (like, say, the woman changing her name when she gets married), it feels radical to return to neutral.

  2. Norman says:

    As you say, Kate, we can only hope that in the future the ones who feel the need to invoke the deity in public will be the ones who have to stand out.
    But much as I oppose public prayer, I personally bristle more at the pledge of allegiance Not the “under God” part, gratuitous as it is, but rather the expectation to mindlessly mouth words, professing blind allegiance regardless of the policies and actions the country takes. Words that most people regurgitate on command without giving any thought to their meaning. It’s like the Chinese kids waving the little red book. Brainwashing.
    Coercion to profess compliance with any ideology, even an inherently good one, is to my mind an infringement on the the freedom that such an oath purports to promote. Let’s not brainwash our citizens about patriotism or religion or consumerism or anything else. Let them think for themselves, or at least give them the opportunity to. Maybe it comes from having been young and idealistic during the Vietnam War. “My country right or wrong.” “America: Love it or leave it.” To this day such sentiments chafe. Let our actions speak louder than these words we mouth by rote. And let us not follow blindly in the name of God or country.

  3. dd says:

    If only NYS was as rational about other things, like how to bring money in and let people live and work affordably.

    For the Pledge, I like the idea of skipping straight to “indivisible” – saying it while they are still saying “under god”, not waiting. It puts you a little off time from the rest, so people know you skipped “under God” but it’s brief, only a few words. I haven’t had a chance to say the pledge since I heard of that as an idea, but I can’t wait to try it.

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