Friday, May 23, 2008

The Pledge Project: In God We Trust - America

An article in the Orange County Register recently, Westminster Cyprus Express Their Faith in God, told of the successes of an organization called "In God We Trust – America" in getting city governments to prominently display the national motto in their city halls. Their goal is to get every city government to display this motto.

"A strong belief in God is important because it's intended to give hope. It's the only thing that can give hope to the citizens in this country. And American patriotism is founded on love of God and country" said Bakersfield councilwoman Jaquie Sullivan, who launched the nationwide campaign to have the national motto mounted at public buildings.

This is another example of the type of bigotry that I talked about in yesterday’s post coming from Ron Lowe in Idaho. Those arguments apply here as well. If she truly believes that patriotism is founded on a love of God, she must then believe that no atheist can be patriotic. As such, she is making judgments about people – prejudgments (or prejudices) about people - she does not know.

We also have reason to suspect that she will use a religious test for government appointments and in judgments about how to spend government money, denying political and economic opportunities to people she is supposed to represent based on her religious prejudices.

Yesterday, I asked hypothetically to consider how well an atheist would fare when dealing with a man like Ron Lowe, who holds that the word of an atheist means nothing, if Lowe were in a position to make appointments or recommendations to fill private jobs and public appointments.

Here, where we have a majority of a city council voting to put "In God We Trust" on the wall of a civics building or, better yet, to display it prominently behind the seats of the council itself so that a person giving testimony cannot help but see the words each time she looks up.

So, when it comes to putting people on government committes, awarding government contracts, hiring government employees, and making political appointments such as judgeships and ambassadorships, what type of people get these positions? What chance does an atheist have of getting any of these awards from a person who holds that patriotism in America requires belief in God?

It is at least legitimate to wonder whether, and to what degree, politicians who hold the view that patriotism requires religious belief award those opportunities first to people 'of faith' – effectively limiting the opportunities of those who do not trust in God accordingly.

The lock on political power that theists are seeking to perpetuate for their own people, and the lock-out that is perpetuated against who do not 'trust in God' – goes beyond the mere fact that atheists are effectively blocked from winning public office. Atheists are also blocked from the economic and political opportunities made available by having friends in public office – at least to the degree that those who hold public office sincerely believe that 'we' (those of us who should hold public office and serve in positions of public trust) must trust in God, and that these awards are only fittingly assigned to people willing to support 'one nation under God'.

In the case of anti-atheist discrimination, there happens to be one area of employment that atheists tend to dominate – a field that does such a good job at making money for theists and protecting their lives and well-being (and the lives of their loved ones) from disease and natural disasters - that the field provides genuine opportunities for success for atheists.

This is the field of science and technical research – the field that comes up with the technological breakthroughs that allow businesses to make billions of dollars and provides the medical breakthroughs that keep the billionaires (and their friends) alive.

For this reason, the atheist scientist is capable of doing quite well.

However, this, in turn, is used as evidence that there is no discrimination against atheists.

The fact is, the success of atheist in some social niche should not be taken as the same as saying that anti-atheist bigotry does not exist in other niches – in the political back rooms, in the awarding of government appointments, in the military regarding promotions and assignments, in court regarding the acceptance of testimony and awarding parental custody to children.

Nor is it legitimate to remark that since the absence of anti-atheist discrimination in one area pulls up the average income levels for all atheists when taken as a whole, that there is no reason to be concerned with the harm done to those atheists who might want to consider a profession other than science - such as politics (or some form of public service) or military service.

There is another item in this article that concerns me. In it, I found the following:

Ellen Johnson, president of American Atheists, said her group is considering legal action against expansion of the slogan "In God We Trust". But she doesn't see her group taking on city councils across America. "How can you tell someone they can’t put that on a city seal when it's the national motto?" Johnson asked.

Note: Ellen Johnson is no longer the president of American Atheists, but was at the time this article was researched.

Here, I see a repeat what the tendency for atheists in specific and secularists in general to look at all issues in terms of legal arguments. Johnson, here, does not even pay homage to the fact that their might be a moral component to the question of whether a government should post a sign that says, in effect, "A person who does not trust in God is not one of us."

This is in spite of the fact that Johnson sees a clear problem with pursuing the issue of "In God We Trust" being posted in public buildings as a legal issue.

The law is whatever the people want the law to be. Slavery, up until 1860, was legal, and even Constitutionally protected. Anybody who tried to fight slavery before 1860 on legal grounds – by arguing that it was unconstitutional to own slaves – would have been out of luck. The argument against slavery had to be fought on moral grounds first, and legal grounds second.

For purely practical reasons, fighting the motto "In God We Trust" and the discrimination and prejudice this embodies also requires taking on the moral arguments first. Until people see the moral problem, they will see the legal efforts as unimportant at best, and, at worst, mean and spiteful.

"In God We Trust" (and other issues of church-state separation in this country) continue to be fought on legal grounds alone – so much so that the leaders of the movement (including Michael Newdow, the ACLU, Americans for the Separation of Church and State, and Ellen Johnson and the American Atheists) seem incapable of even conceiving of a moral argument against this practice.

I would like to take these leaders of the atheist and secular movements and ask them, "Assume that there was no First Amendment – no bill of rights calling for the separation of church and state. Let's assume that the theocrats were right and the founding fathers made the same mistake regarding religious bigotry that they made with respect to slavery and permitted these practices. If that were the case, how would go about fighting a pledge of allegiance to 'one nation under God' or having 'In God We Trust' as the national motto? Would it even be possible, as you understand things, to raise an objection against these practices in the absence of the First Amendment?"

Think of the people who debated the First Amendment over 200 years ago. Clearly, they were not debating the issue of the separation of church and state based on a legal argument that such a prohibition has already been written into the law. They were debating whether such a prohibition should be written into the law.

That is also the debate we should be having. Two centuries after the authorship of the First Amendment, we seem to have completely forgotten about the moral question as we suffer from an extreme form of tunnel vision that continues to focus our attention exclusively on the legal question.

When the Pledge of Allegiance last came before the Supreme Court, I saw a segment on C-Span involving Michael Newdow and someone defending 'under God'. The priest, in this case, asked Newdow to explain where the first amendment came from. If there were no first amendment, what would Newdow say to propose or defend such an amendment.

The priest was actually making the point that atheists have no foundation for their morality. He was arguing that, outside of a legal objection to 'under God', Newdow and other atheists could not come up with a moral objection to the practice. Morality comes from God and, for the sake of preserving morality, Newdow should respect the need to have a pledge of allegiance to 'one nation under God'.

This is my challenge to anybody who wishes to speak on this subject. "What would you say in defense of such a prohibition if there were no First Amendment?"

In addition to having somebody go before a council that is posting such a sign and saying, "This violates the First Amendment to the Constitution," it would be refreshing and useful if somebody were to go before the council or school board debating such a proposal and say, "No fair and just representative would vote to put up a sign that says, 'We do not consider a person who fails to trust in God to be one of us'. It is wholly inappropriate to put such a message on the courthouse wall, on the money, or anywhere else."

"When you put 'In God We Trust' on the city seal (or display it in city hall), you are telling the people, 'Do not think of those who fail to trust in God as being one of us. They are not. To be one of us, you must trust in God. Fail to trust in God, and you are not one of us.' No fair and just government would make such a claim against its own peaceful law-abiding citizens. Even if the constitution permitted it - which it does not, it would not be right."

Answering this objection with the claim, "But this is the national motto, and certainly it is permissible to put the national motto in a public building," is effectively muted by this argument. It may be the national motto, but that does not change the fact that no fair and just government would post a sign making such a claim about a segment of its peaceful law-abiding citizenry.

The claim also disarms any arguments that appeal to distorted Constitutional claims or quote-mining the founding fathers. Regardless of what the person defending this motto might come up with, they cannot use it to quiet the objection that no just representative of the people would make such a claim against its peaceful law-abiding citizenry.

Ultimately, the issue of the national motto is more of a moral issue than a legal issue. If no moral objection can be raised against posting "In God We Trust" in public buildings and on the money, then the claim that it ought not to be done is arbitrary and unfounded. Even if the Constitution does prohibit such an act, if there is no argument that the Constitution should prohibit such an act then that makes this a part of the Constitution arbitary and unfounded.

On the other hand, if there is a moral argument to be made against posting the national motto - and, in fact, there is a strong moral argument against it - then this argument does not depend on what the Constitution says. In fact, this moral argument would be an argument that told us, "Even if such a constitutional prohibition did not exist, a fair and just people would create one."

Any argument to the effect that the Constitution allows governments to make unfair derogatory statements about peaceful citizens based on religious belief is an argument that the Constitution permits something that should not be permitted. It makes the claim that the constitition permits such an act similar to the claim that the constitution permits slavery. Even when it was true, it did not morally justify slavery.

There is a moral argument to be made in addition to the legal argument, and this argument needs to be put before the people. It is on the basis of this moral argument that we judge whether a law is just or unjust - or just some arbitrary but groundless limit on what others may or may not do.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for this excellent article. Please see recent news reports of vandalism to my home after I politely requested that our City Council not post the National motto on the prominent wall of council chambers.

Anonymous said...

I am currently fighting this in Los Alamitos.


Alonzo Fyfe said...

For the last two Anonymous writers:

I am restarting a companion blog, Atheist Ethicist Journal to keep track of events such as yours. Please keep me informed.

Anonymous1: One thing that I have argued for in the past, that I will argue for again, is for a secular organization that fights these types of laws to set up a victim relief fund.

It would be a place that (1) publishes acts of violence against the defenders of secularism such as what you experienced, and (2) provides some place to go for financial and moral support.

You should have the support and the backing of all people who realize the value of what you have taken a risk to defend.

Martin Freedman said...


Are you saying that there is no secular organization in the States that does this, e.g the ACLU?

In the UK we have both the NSS and the BHA and I just reported on actions the BHA succeeded with Christians lose a freedom to discriminate! Still things could certainly be better (funded) here and I do not think there is a victim support fund here either.

Alonzo Fyfe said...


The ACLU and Americans United for the Separation of Church and State focus almost exclusively on legal issues. The ACLU in particular is a legal organization whose sole function is to inform organizations of what their legal rights and obligations are, and to file lawsuits where rights or obligations are violated.

AU mas some slight focus on moral issues, but even there it is the morality of obeying the Constitution - the moral obligation to obey the law (combined with the same legal arguments) - that dominates their arguments.

Really, there is no organization in this country devoted in more than a small way to Constitution-independent moral arguments against these practices.

I have wondered at times if this might have been one of the unfortunate consequences of having a First Amendment.

Anonymous said...

If you are Atheist and dont believe in God then you need to find him Really QUICK because your not promised tomorrow. There is a God and there is a HEAVEN and a HELL!! So you better wake up and reconize what is going on in the world today!! Your crazy if you do not believe in God! He is the best thing that will ever happen to you. He is always ther for me no matter what I have done in my life; he always forgives me, and gives me more chances, but he also says your never PROMISED TOMORROW! So get your life right today and you will not have tot worry where you will be going when you die! Hope you choose the right choice!
If you have any questions you can e-mail me at

Anonymous said...

The local city mayor of Marshall, Mo.has decided that we should have the motto "In God We Trust" over the entrance to the council chambers. It is reported that the Rev Mayor had the sign bought and installed before the city council voted on it. I might add that the mayor is the founder and minister of a local non denominational church. The mayor claims he put the sign up at the request of a Springfield, Mo law firm.. Hmmmmmmm!