Category Archives: Food for Thought

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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Dear Mr. Miranda: A Thank-You Note

hamilton-castDear Mr. Miranda,

The morning after the election I made my husband get up with the kids. I couldn’t face them. They were not innocents: they knew about North Carolina’s bathroom law and the dangers of driving while black. But they are children of the Obama era: they’ve grown up believing that the forces of progress win.

As their mom, I had let them believe that, had even encouraged them to. A parent is supposed to do two basic things: protect her kids from harm and prepare them for the future. I had failed on both counts. On top of the shock and sorrow I felt shame.

Days passed. I couldn’t read the paper. I couldn’t look at Facebook. I couldn’t even go into my closet, lest I see the suit jacket I had bought for Election Day. (Then it was a lovely shade of blue; now it was the color of confidence kicked in the gut.) 

But I couldn’t work either. So I scanned my NYT Morning Briefing email to find something to distract myself. A book review. A recipe. Arts news. Wasn’t there something about Lin-Manuel Miranda? There’s always something about Lin-Manuel Miranda.

Sure enough: the kerfuffle about the Hamilton cast’s post-show statement to audience member and future VP Mike Pence. Trump’s expression of outrage and demand for an apology. And finally his supporters’ call to #boycotthamilton.

Ha!

I laughed out loud for the first time in 10 days. Boycott Hamilton? That’s like attacking a mountain with a Wiffle Ball bat. Taking aim at the sun with a squirt gun. With that one hashtag, the forces of regress revealed themselves to be puny, to be losers who would, eventually, lose. It will be awful in the meantime: we’ll be fighting for health care and reproductive rights; we’ll be hiding undocumented immigrants while praying for China not to take seriously our thin-skinned tweeter-in-chief.

But in the long run, he doesn’t stand a chance against Hamilton—against art that speaks to people. That’s where progress will not just live but thrive. Art that both six-graders and Broadway snobs are obsessed with; art that cites Shakespeare and the Notorious B.I.G; art that springs from all kinds of crazy knowledge about music and musicals and history and politics and rhyme; art that’s based on a fucking 832-page book.

And if Hamilton-the-work-of-art triumphs over Trump, so too does Hamilton’s vision—your vision—of an America where immigrants are necessary, where talent and brains can make things happen, where culture is treasured but skin color is irrelevant. My 11-year-old, who knows your show by heart but has not seen it, confessed recently that when she saw a portrait of the actual Alexander Hamilton, she was a little disappointed. “I mean, I knew he wouldn’t look like Lin-Manuel Miranda, but I was kinda hoping he would.”

Our kids are children of the Hamilton era. We’re going to be OK.

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Donald Trump’s Elusive Frenemy

politically-correct-dictionaryOn a call home from The Mountain School—a semester program for high school juniors—my son Noah complained about a committee he had joined to decide how the student body should talk about the coming election. The conclusion: delicately. “It was ridiculous,” he said. “I’m sorry but it was just so politically correct.”

The “I’m sorry” was for my benefit: he knows I hate the phrase “politically correct.” And yet I too found laughable the idea of protecting hypothetical Trump-supporting 16-year-olds from the intellectual judgment of their peers.  Waah! You Vermont liberals are so mean! Don’t make me feel bad for wanting a sexist, racist, xenophobic nincompoop to be president.

“People’s beliefs are the only thing you should be able to judge,” said Noah. I agreed with his point. So why did I resist his terminology?

The phrase “politically correct” has bothered me since my college years in the late 80s and early 90s, when women’s studies became a doctoral field and Allan Bloom decried the tragic devaluing of the Western canon. Around that time, my father (who perhaps not incidentally teaches the most canonical subject possible: Shakespeare) used the phrase in a book he was writing and I was editing; I made him take it out. It’s a phrase that insinuates rather than specifies, I (maybe) said. It’s got the slippery exterior of jargon and it makes you sound like a grumpy white male.  

Which was true. It’s also true that the term “political correctness” felt like a personal dig, an insult to me and my politics, the way it infuriatingly took the social justice issues I (and my father) cared about and lumped them together with a humorless obsession with terminology. Take, for instance, this New York Magazine cover story from 1991:

Are You Politically Correct?

Am I guilty of racism, sexism, classism? Am I guilty of agism, ableism, lookism? Am I logocentric? Do I say “Indian” instead “Native American”? “Pet” instead of “animal companion”? by John Taylor.

 

Every movement has its embarrassing excesses; in fact, “politically correct” began, according to Amanda Hesser of the New York Times, as a self-deprecating joke among left-leaning activists. No matter. The right soon appropriated it as a term of contempt, mocking leftist excesses in the hope of dismissing the serious issue beneath it all: the ways in which we unwittingly perpetuate prejudice, injustice, and inequality through our language and our institutions.

Twenty-five years later, the term “political correctness” is back with a vengeance, still resisting clear definition, still lazily making a range of hazy accusations:

  • Oversensitivity to the rights of minorities
  • Oversensitivity to the feelings of minorities
  • Embrace of ever-evolving categories of oppression and oppressed groups
  • Elevation of identity politics above all other concerns
  • Mindless adherence to liberal orthodoxy
  • Self-righteousness in the face of perceived infractions to the liberal order
  • Suppression of free speech
  • Tyranny
  • Smugness
  • Insincerity

That last one is a new one, I think. Today’s version of political correctness includes the implication that no one really believes the “p.c.” versions of the statements they make. In other words, President Obama wants to say “radical Islamic terrorism” but is forced by political correctness to say “violent extremists.” And while you know in your heart the right thing to say is “Merry Christmas,” you say “Happy Holidays” for the sake of . . . political correctness. That fundamental presumption of insincerity is what gives “politically correct” its weaselly edge and “politically incorrect” its proud air of truth-telling.

Which brings us to Donald Trump, self-described “truth teller.” For the past year, he has amplified the drumbeat against political correctness to such an extent that Americans polled in June think political correctness is a bigger problem than prejudice. Next to Hillary Clinton, political correctness is Trump’s favorite enemy. Trump uses the term “political correctness” to defend his own crass behavior (“I think the big problem this country has is being politically correct,” he said, in response to Megyn Kelly’s question about his calling women “pigs” and “dogs”). He uses it to accuse others of liberal weak-mindedness (“The enemy is cutting off the heads of Christians and drowning them in cages, and yet we are too politically correct to respond in kind” in a USA Today op-ed). And he uses it to preempt critiques of his policy proposals (banning Muslim immigration is “not politically correct, but I don’t care,” he said at a rally last December).  

Basically, if you’re looking for a quotation that includes the words “political correctness,” look to Trump. Beware, however: you may get confused. I, for instance, thought it was simple respect that kept us from calling people “pigs” and “dogs”; that we didn’t cut off people’s heads and drown them in cages on account of basic human decency, American values, and international law; and that we refrained from banning Muslims due to our very own, Founding-Fathers-Approved, First Amendment. 

Even Republicans have questioned Trump’s use of the term: After stating in a debate that Trump’s inflammatory anti-Muslim statements had real-world consequences, and after hearing the predictable “political correctness” scoff from Trump, Marco Rubio replied, “I’m not interested in being politically correct. I’m interested in being correct.”

I rejoiced at that comment, and then I took a moment to wonder how Marco Rubio and I could possibly agree.

This is how: Political correctness is going too far in the attempt to make sure other people are treated with respect. The reason the term is so slippery is that “going too far” depends on your perspective. One person’s “going too far” is another person’s marriage equality . . . affirmative action . . . even Civil Rights Act. But all of us, even liberals, have a line we draw somewhere in the shifting sands of human progress; cross that line and eyes will roll. Trump’s line appears to be somewhere around the time of the Crusades. Mine, I see now, is at The Mountain School, around the time of Trump.

If anyone is keeping track, that means Noah is right: it is indeed political correctness that is protecting teenage Trump supporters from the judgment of their peers. 

The irony would be delicious if I could stomach anything that rich this close to the election.