Category Archives: politics

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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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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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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