Author Archives: Kate Cohen

Precedent

The most recent ruling on whether it’s constitutional to have “In God We Trust” as our national motto came in late August, from the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals. You can read it if you want, but I should warn you, the plaintiff list alone will make your eyes glaze over:

New Doe Child #1; New Doe Child #2; New Doe Child #3; New Doe Parent; New Roe Child; New Roe Parent; New Boe Child; New Boe Parent; New Poe Child; New Poe Parent; New Coe Child #1; New Coe Child #2; New Coe Child #3; New Coe Parent; Gary Lee Berger; Marie Alena Castle; Charles Daniel Christopher; Patrick Ethen; Betty Gogan; Thomas Gogan; Roger W. Kaye; Charlotte Leverette; Dr. James B. Lyttle; Kyle Pettersen-Scott; Odin Smith; Andrea Dawn Sampson; Eric Wells; Atheists for Human Rights (AFHR); Saline Atheist & Skeptic Society, Plaintiffs-Appellants, v. The United States of America; [et al.]

N.B.: I used a little Latin to spare you the defendant list. I can spare you the decision itself, too. It’s just a variation on the argument that has been made since the very first constitutional challenge to “In God We Trust,” Aronow v. United States (1970): the motto simply doesn’t have much to do with God.

“It’s quite obvious,” opines the majority in Aronow, “that ‘In God We Trust’ has nothing whatsoever to do with the establishment of religion. Its use is of patriotic or ceremonial character . . . [with] no theological or ritualistic impact.” It’s “lost through rote repetition any significant religious content” (Lynch v. Donnelly, 1984). As O’Hair v. Blumenthal (1978) puts it (summarizing Aronow), “the primary purpose of the slogan was secular; it served a secular ceremonial purpose in the obviously secular function of providing a medium of exchange.” It’s not about God per se, so much as “the Government’s legitimate goal of honoring religion’s role in American life and in the protection of fundamental rights” (New Doe Child #1 v. U.S.) Et cetera.

In other words, “In God We Trust” is perfectly constitutional because . . . it doesn’t mean what it says.

God knows I sometimes forget that “God” means God too. Theism—especially the Christian variety—pervades American discourse so thoroughly we sometimes don’t even notice it. I’m an atheist and even I don’t generally think about the significance of “In God We Trust” on the dollar bill any more than I do that weird pyramid thing with the eyeball.

Even worse, I sometimes forget our government is supposed to be religion-free. Back in June when Attorney General Jeff Sessions excused the separation of families at the border by citing Romans 13:1 (the Apostle Paul’s command to obey authorities), I was disgusted by the use of the New Testament to defend something so patently, well, un-Christian, and later thrilled when Stephen Colbert responded in his monologue with Romans 13:10 (“ . . . therefore love is the law”). So happy was I to see a good Christian with a good Bible quote vanquish a bad Christian with a bad one, I completely forgot the Bible shouldn’t have anything to do with the matter.

It’s like a smell that sticks around so long you don’t smell it anymore. But it’s there, trust me. In fact, a slew of states recently passed laws requiring the posting of “In God We Trust” in schools because . . . it’s patriotic, secular, and has no religious content? Nope. Because “God” means God. In Florida, Representative Kimberly Daniels introduced the bill on the House floor this way: God isn’t “Republican and he’s not a Democrat,” she said. “He’s not black and he’s not white. He is the light. And our schools need light in them like never before.” This was nine days after the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School and one day after the House had failed to advance a bill banning assault weapons.

There you have it. If God is touted as the solution to the Parkland massacre, “In God We Trust” is not only (pace legal precedent) a sincere expression of belief in God, but also a compelling argument for getting God out of the public discourse. As long as He’s in the way, we’re not going to get much done.

But each ruling that comes down stacks the odds ever higher against atheists and others who prefer to keep state separate from church. New Doe Child # 1 v. United States alone cites four dozen cases as precedent. And now it too will take its place alongside its forebears, buttressing the constitutionality of “In God We Trust” by repetition and tradition and yet more precedent. Reason v. Tradition is a tough case to win.

Still, I find hope in New Doe Child #1 v. United States. Not in the decision itself, but in that comically long list of plaintiffs. Take another look. Along with eight other anonymous children, New Doe Child #1 is being raised as an atheist. Not just an atheist—an activist. Which means she’ll probably raise her own kids that way, and maybe their kids or their kids will manage to get elected to school boards and state legislatures and Congress despite their manifest failure to place their trust in a supreme being. And maybe then when the question of the national motto comes up, “In God We Trust” will go down.

It’s a long way off, I know. But if those of us who don’t believe in God raise our children as atheists—if we set that precedent—there’s hope. New Doe Child #1, I’m counting on you.

 

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“I’m Actually An Atheist”: Revisiting Rebecca Vitsmun’s CNN Surprise

Five years ago this week marked a victory for atheists.

It wasn’t a group of newly elected politicians affirming that they didn’t believe in God; those representatives are still few and far between. It wasn’t a handful of states finally purging anti-atheist rhetoric from their constitutions; we still have seven to go. And it had nothing to do with the Supreme Court; Greece v. Galloway would be decided the following year.

This victory came in the form of approximately 12 seconds of incredible television.
A tornado had just ravaged Moore, Oklahoma — 24 dead, more than 200 injured — and CNN had dispatched anchor Wolf Blitzer to the scene. In an interview with survivor Rebecca Vitsmun, Blitzer congratulated her on her decision to grab her child and evacuate her home before the twister came.

“You gotta thank the Lord, right?” he asked. Vitsmun inclined her head down toward the toddler in her arms and said nothing. Blitzer pushed: “Do you thank the Lord for that split-second decision?”

“I’m actually an atheist,” she responded.

 

That little clip of post-disaster footage has been viewed more than 2.6 million times — and that’s just one version of it. I’m sure I’m not the only atheist to have watched it more than once. It was thrilling. The assumption of belief upended! The nice Oklahoma lady who isn’t a Christian! The glib reporter thrown off his game! The ritualized post-disaster piety popped like a balloon by one sharp-edged word!

When I first saw it back then it made me yelp in triumph.

When I watch it today, however, it makes me a little sad.

Vitsmun said later in an interview with Seth Andrews (a.k.a. The Thinking Atheist), “I had this moment where I just stopped for a second and I realized, you either lie or tell the truth. And I, just, I’m not a liar.” But it doesn’t look that simple in the clip. When the big moment comes — “Do you thank the Lord…?” — she pauses, smiles, and shrugs apologetically. “I–I’m–I [laughs], I’m actually an atheist,” she finally manages to say. She and Blitzer share an uncomfortable laugh. And then Vitsmun immediately seeks to reassure the television audience that she’s still a nice person. “We are here,” she concedes (meaning her and her son) “and you know I don’t blame anybody for thanking the Lord.”

I still thrill at Vitsmun’s honesty, but almost exactly five years later, I find myself focusing on the way she seems to have to apologize for it. Maybe it’s because, in the midst of the #MeToo movement, I’ve been thinking about the pressure women face to play along. To avoid saying “no” out of concern for other people’s feelings. Maybe it’s because I have felt my own cheeks burn when saying the A-word (in Upstate New York, no less), or more often, chosen not to say it at all.

Because it’s easy not to. The comments following the clip include really helpful post-interview advice on how Vitsmun should have responded, snarky comebacks along the lines of “Yes, I thank the Lord he killed 24 neighbors and destroyed my home.” But I keep thinking what most of us would have said. What I probably would have said to deflect the question so as not to offend.

“Do you thank the Lord…?”
“We’re so, so thankful to be safe.”

“Do you thank the Lord…?”
“Right now I’m just worried about my friends and neighbors.”

“Do you thank the Lord…?”
“Honestly, Wolf, I’m just in shock.”

That’s how many of us avoid the uncomfortable truth, all the time. And, maybe, that’s why there are so many more atheists in America than people think. It’s surprisingly hard to brave the awkward moment, to overturn the easy assumption, to stop a friendly conversation in its tracks.

But Vitsmun did. She managed to stammer out the truth about herself on national television, embarrassing a celebrity (male) reporter in the process. Despite the fact that her parents didn’t know that she was an atheist. Despite the fact that, as she has said, she’d been “in the closet” for 10 years and didn’t intend to come out.

Watch that clip above. Marvel at how little it takes to be an atheist hero — and how much it clearly took. Resolve that if you’re ever asked, “Do you thank the Lord…?” you find the courage to say, “No.”

***

Many thanks to Hemant Mehta for allowing me to join him at The Friendly Atheist his blog at Patheos.com.

 

Take the Statues; Leave the Pedestals

pedestal“It’s Wrong to Erase History” is the title of an angry letter to the editor of the Baltimore Sun complaining about the swift and stealthy removal of four Confederate statues Tuesday night.

That’s the gist of much of the argument for leaving intact commemorative statues of Confederate leaders. 

I agree. It’s wrong to erase history.

But statues aren’t history. They are present. They are now.

Just think about their function: what does a commemorative statue do? It makes a statement about our communal values. It expresses our ideals. Just by standing there in a park or near a courthouse or government plaza, it is doing its job. Not in the past — right now, today. And tomorrow. And every day that it continues to stand.

We should not erase signs of our historical past, even when — especially when — that past is ugly. We shouldn’t pave Gettysburg and put up a parking lot. But Gettysburg does not continue to produce the horror for which we remember it. Gettysburg is no longer the site of bloody battle; it’s a historical site complete with Visitor Center, Museum, Ranger-Led Tours, and a Cyclorama.

Of course, even though these statues aren’t history per se — even though they are all currently at work valorizing leaders of the Confederacy — they are the site of a historical event: the erecting of the statue itself.

That history, as Zack Beauchamp at VOX has pointed out, is often repugnant: a doubling down on the myth of white southern nobility in response to the fight for civil rights.

That’s why many of these statues went up. And the history of municipal approbation of white supremacy is history we should not erase. 

I can think of two good options for accurately representing the historical record:

(1) Erect another statue next to the first statue as commentary. I’m thinking maybe Martin Luther King, Jr., head in hands, sobbing. Or a black mother looking askance at Lee while covering her child’s eyes. Or a mob of Klansmen in full costume giving Lee a thumbs up.

That might get pricey. A cheaper option would be

(2) Remove the statue, but leave the pedestal, complete with a new commemorative plaque. For example:

Here stood, from 1924, a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee on horseback.

For almost a century this 26-foot-tall bronze likeness expressed civic admiration for a man who fought against the United States and for the cause of slavery.

In 2017, the people of Charlottesville, Virginia, decided it was time to take it down.

 

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