I received in my email recently a press release calling for opposition to “Measure AA” in Villa Park, CA. The measure would put the motto “In God We Trust” in the city council chambers.
The Press Release says that the Council missed the point in putting this measure on the ballot. However, the press release itself appeared to miss a few points.
Point 1: The press release opens by stating that opposition is being lead by Bruce Gleason, the leader of Backyard Skeptics, "a community of humanists, freethinkers and atheists and an affiliate of Atheists United." This, in a country where any position that gets associated with atheists or atheism is guaranteed to make that position unpopular.
We live in a society where a majority of the people view atheist as those who least share their values, as being unfit to hold public office purely in virtue of their beliefs, and those whom they would least want their child to marry. I wrote just a few days ago about Senator Elizabeth Dole's strategy of defeating her challenger, Kay Hagan, to atheists. The main strategy for denigrating the teaching of evolution is by associating it with atheism – a strategy also used in the movie "Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed."
Supporters for Measure AA would have paid good money to have somebody associate opposition to this measure with atheists. This association was handed to them free of charge.
I am not saying that Gleason and the Backyard Skeptics should not be involved in this campaign. In fact, I think that the victims of bigotry need to take the lead in this type of fight. Blacks did not obtain any measure of political equality by sitting home and watching Davey Crocket, and 21st century atheists will gain no measure of political respect by sitting home and watching Survivor.
However, that involvement should at least pay attention to the fact that we live in a society with a great deal of anti-atheist bigotry. This fact needs to be acknowledged and tacked directly.
I am an atheist, and I oppose Measure AA. For many of you, the fact that I am an atheist will be seen as reason enough to support this measure. From the time you were a small child the government has been feeding you a steady diet of anti-atheist bigotry. One of the forms these lessons have taken is to put on the money and in public buildings a message that tells you, "In order to be counted as a true American, one has to trust in God." The government should not be involved in teaching hate. The government should treat all of its law-abiding citizens with equal respect, regardless of their religious beliefs. This is why I oppose Measure AA.
Point 2: The Press Release mentions that the use of the motto violates the Constitution. This ignores the fact that most people believe that it is consistent with the Constitution – and this (probably) includes a majority of the judges on the Supreme Court.
We are dealing with a culture that is built on the practice of reading what one wants to read into texts such as the Bible. This culture wants to see the Constitution as protecting their religious supremacy, so this is what they see in the Constitution. According to their argument, the motto, "In God We Trust" is an example of religious expression protected by the Constitution. It is also an example of freedom of expression. Those who oppose this measure are the ones who are anti-freedom and anti-Constitution.
It is a waste of time to argue to somebody that they should believe Q because P implies Q when they have already rejected P. If there is any interest at all in pursuing this argument, then the argument needs to backtrack and prove the truth of P, before one can effective assert that P implies Q. In this case, it means defending the principle of the separation of church and state, rather than merely asserting the principle as if everybody already accepts it. They do not.
Any decent person has to recognize that he is capable of error. It is pure arrogance for he Christian to assume that the Jew or the Atheist is wrong, just as the Jew or the Atheist exhibits pure arrogance in assuming that the Christian must be wrong. The reason why the founding fathers argued for freedom of religion is because it did not want the government to take sides in these disputes. They wanted the people to debate these differences among themselves and reach their own decisions free from government interference. It is ludicrous to suggest that the national motto, "In God We Trust", is not an example of taking sides.
Point 3: The Press Release does not ignore, but does bury, the absurdity of the claim that the motto is being used to promote patriotism.
Here’s a question to be asked of anybody who defends posting the national motto:
So, tell me, do you believe that a person who does not trust in God cannot be patriotic?
If the answer to this question is, "Yes.", then one can launch into a speech against religious bigotry – of how bigots try to gain advantage for themselves by putting down others and calling them inferior, and that no good government would post signs declaring that one group of peaceful, law-abiding citizens who hold one religious beliefs are, in its eyes, inferior to all others. A clear example of this is anybody who would claim that a person who trusts in God is a patriot, and those who do not trust in God are not.
If the answer is, "No", the response is, Then this is not patriotism. If you agree that a person who does not trust in God can be a patriot, then promoting trust in God is not the same as promoting patriotism. You cannot have it both ways. If this sign is meant to promote patriotism, you have to say that patriotism requires trust in God. If you deny that patriotism requires trust in God, then this sign does not promote patriotism.
The press release does include a statement from Stuart Bechman, the head of Atheists United, that “These efforts serve the singular purpose of promoting the idea that the United States is a Christian nation and that non-Christians are second class citizens or not citizens at all.”
This statement should not be buried at the end of the press release. That should be the lead, because this is what the dispute is all about.
Slavery, at one time, was constitutional. You cannot argue that something should be the case by arguing that it follows the Constitution, because the Constitution was written by fallible human beings. Even arguing that something violates the Constitution, it is still reasonable to ask whether it is right or whether it is wrong.
The first argument should be why the motto should be rejected even if there were no Constitutional prohibition against it. The first argument should be to point out why it is wrong for any government to post a sign in its public halls that say, "Those who do not trust in God are not welcome here – we do not think of you as one of us."
Then, after establishing the wrongness of this proposal, it is meaningful to point out that either (1) the founding fathers were wise enough to see the wrongness of this type of conduct and write it into the Constitution, or (2) the founding fathers made yet another mistake by using the Constitution to defend something that is, in fact, wrong. These become the only two options where the wrongness of the act has already been established.
The reason people want to post "In God We Trust" in government buildings is because they want to send the people a message that there are two classes of citizens in this country. "We" – the superior, first class, 'good', 'patriotic' Americans, trust in God. 'They', who do not trust in God, are not good enough to be included in the group called Americans. It is to be expected that Sullivan and those like her would love to see a sign on the City Council walls that brand them as superior citizens to those who do not share their religious beliefs. But the question remains whether it is legitimate for the government to be posting this message in public meeting rooms.
In fact, Sullivan is clearly seeking to make trust in God a religious requirement for public office. "All members of this Council trust in God, so that if a person does not trust in God, do not make them a member of this council." She seeks to deprive American citizens of one of their most fundamental right – to run for office as a political equal regardless of one’s religious beliefs – by hanging an advertisement favoring candidates who trust in God in the City Council chambers.
Sullivan's purpose with this measure is to establish religion – to establish 'trust in God' as a religious test for public office, and she wants to advertise this message of bigotry, division, and exclusion from the walls of the City Council chambers itself. That is something that the Founding Fathers told us we should not tolerate. And they were right.