Category Archives: Church and state

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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Whom Would Jesus Choose?

Worse TrumpPope Francis, heading home from his recent trip to Mexico, answered a question about Donald Trump’s immigration policy like this: “A person who thinks only about building walls — wherever they may be — and not building bridges, is not Christian.”

Trump replied, “For a religious leader to question a person’s faith is disgraceful.” Actually a religious leader seems uniquely suited to that task. But questioning “a person’s faith” is not exactly what the Pope was doing.

He wasn’t saying Trump didn’t accept Jesus Christ as the son of God. He wasn’t saying that Trump didn’t pray or go to church or read the Bible. The Pope questioned not whether Trump believed himself to be a Christian, but whether he intended to act like one.

That’s “Christian” as in a person “who follows the teachings of Jesus Christ.” A quick perusal of the New Testament reveals these to include serving the poor, treating others as you would want to be treated, helping strangers, and forgiving, forgiving, forgiving.

I have mixed feelings about this use of the word “Christian.” If a Christian is, by definition, a good person (whatever your theological beliefs, those teaching are pretty good ones), then a bad person cannot be called—no, cannot be—a Christian.

That leaves one with no way to describe the group of people who call themselves Christian but whose behavior isn’t . . . Christian at all. Under this definition, Westboro Baptist Church members are not Christian; Pat Robertson is not a Christian; Robert Louis Dear is not a Christian. And there can be no such thing as a “Christian terrorist.”

This doesn’t seem quite fair. (Leaving aside whether the Pope would be consistent on this question: surely priests who prey on children are not, according to his definition, Christian. But would he say that? We’ll give him the benefit of the doubt)

On the other hand, I like the idea that in order to be called “Christian” you have to adhere to a set of ideals, not just claim the title. You shouldn’t get to slide based on giving money to the church or knowing the words to the Lord’s Prayer or even accepting that Jesus Christ died for your sins. You should have to follow his teachings, or at least try to.

For a “Christian” that would mean making an effort to show charity, mercy, and forgiveness. Jesus doesn’t seem particularly interested in sexual morality. He doesn’t care about punishment. He says he is “the way,” but he doesn’t condemn (or ask his dad to smite) people who don’t go that way; he tells his followers to preach to nonbelievers, not to attack them.

None of that sounds like Donald Trump, who could fairly be described as Candidate Least Likely to Turn the Other Cheek. Cheek turning is obviously for total losers.

The Pope is right: you’d have to look elsewhere to find the most Christian candidate for President. You’d have to find the one most pro-immigration, pro-amnesty, and anti-poverty, the one who demands health care for everyone and increased taxes on the rich. Jesus would have taxed the shit out of the rich.

If you were determined to vote for a “Christian,” in short, it appears that you’d have to vote for the Jew.

 

 

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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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