"In God We Trust" (Or Else)
There are certainly plenty of wonderful individual people of faith around, including many Christians.
I feel obligated to open with this acknowledgement (disclaimer?) because my next several posts are going to focus on clashes between religious folks and public education which have been in the news recently, and it seems like every time you come across a story about someone asserting their Christian beliefs via legislation or the courts, they’re doing it for one of three reasons: (1) they want more government money for something without having to follow the same rules as everyone else, (2) they want the government to like their religion best and tell everyone about it more often because that’s “freedom of religion,” or (3) they want to be horrible to some group of people everyone else is supposed to be kind to.
All in all, it doesn’t paint a very flattering picture of the group as a whole. Then again, we’ve seen their voting habits, so…
Texas Demands Empty Proclamations of Faith Without Substance
The Texas State Legislature has passed a bill requiring that any public schools which just happen to end up with one or more “In God We Trust” signs in their possession post them as prominently as possible. (As of this writing, it’s waiting on the Governor’s signature.) Presumably, they’re hoping this will pass constitutional muster thanks to a combination of factors:
- The signage will be donated, not paid for by state tax dollars.
- "In God We Trust” is our national motto – a statement of patriotism (supposedly), not religion.
- The Supreme Court has previously ruled that some religious statements are so drained of meaning as to no longer trigger “wall of separation” issues.
The “national motto” thing is a remnant of our 1950s terror of all things Communist. If spiritual purity and a commitment to capitalism weren’t synonyms before World War II, they certainly became so by the time of color television. The Commies were “godless,” so one way the U.S. could stand tall was to insert things like “under God” into the Pledge of Allegiance and make “In God We Trust” our official national motto. (For those of you unfamiliar with the teachings of Jesus, he was very big on public rituals and governmental gestures of support.)
This conflation of all things red, white, and blue with orthodox Christianity has only intensified since. In the hearts and minds of the controlling (and voting) majority of American faithful, you can’t love Jesus and favor gun control legislation. You can’t take communion and oppose tax breaks for the uber-wealthy. And it’s easier for an elephant to go through restorative justice training than for a Black man to have equal rights in the eyes of the law because look they must have been asking for it or they wouldn’t have the mark of Cain to begin with. It’s hardly a coincidence that the same Texas legislature pushing the “In God We Trust” signage passed a law requiring sports teams to play the National Anthem before every game.
Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick was a staunch advocate for the bill, dubbed the “Star Spangled Banner Protection Act.” The measure was first introduced in February after the Dallas Mavericks briefly stopped playing the national anthem before their home games.
“Texans are tired of sports teams that pander, insulting our national anthem and the men and women who died fighting for our flag,” Patrick said in a statement in April. “The passage of SB 4 will ensure Texans can count on hearing the Star Spangled Banner at major sports events throughout the state that are played in venues that taxpayers support. We must always remember that America is the land of the free and the home of the brave.”
Notice the title – the “Star Spangled Banner Protection Act.” Because patriotism, like faith, apparently can’t survive without government propping it up by force. Note also the claim that American soldiers fight and die “for our flag.” Not our values, not our Constitution, and certainly not our people – for the cloth and the symbols and the rituals.
I won’t even try to make sense of mandating adherence to a ritual in order to remind us we’re the land of the free. Modern GOP “reality” gives me a headache. Instead, back to those godless public schools…
In 2004, the Supreme Court heard a case involving the “under God” bit added to the Pledge in the 1950s. A non-custodial parent objected to his daughter being exposed to this daily chant of devotion in her local public school. The Court avoided deciding the case on its merits, finding instead that the plaintiff lacked standing to sue (the girl’s mother, who legally had custody, had no objections to the Pledge).
Several concurring opinions, however, indicated that had they addressed the issue itself, the Pledge would have been fine. The best-known was this bit from Justice Sandra Day O’Connor:
Given the values that the Establishment Clause was meant to serve… I believe that government can… acknowledge or refer to the divine without offending the Constitution. This category of “ceremonial deism” most clearly encompasses such things as the national motto (“In God We Trust”), religious references in traditional patriotic songs such as The Star-Spangled Banner, and the words with which the Marshal of this Court opens each of its sessions (“God save the United States and this honorable Court”). These references are not minor trespasses upon the Establishment Clause to which I turn a blind eye. Instead, their history, character, and context prevent them from being constitutional violations at all.
In other words, “under God” was no more spiritual than saying “bless you” when someone sneezed or “OMG!” when you see a cool TikTok video. It was purely ceremonial, stripped of substance by repetition and years of historical impotence.
That’s what Texas is going for with their motto requirement – something barely constitutional because it lacks the slightest spiritual or religious meaning in the eyes of the courts or, presumably, the citizenry at large. Otherwise, it would be blatantly unconstitutional.
A Moment Of Pray—Er… Silence
The same basic approach was taken by numerous states when passing “moment of silence” legislation. These laws require school announcements each day to include 3-4 seconds of silence (some statutes specify a full minute) during which students can “reflect, meditate, or pray” or some variation thereof. These laws pass constitutional muster because they’re so pointless. Sure, kids can pray – but they don’t have to. Of course, they can also pray silently before the moment of silence, or after it. Kids have never ever EVER in the history of the United States been prohibited from praying silently during the school day, or from praying collectively and out loud on school grounds as long as it’s not in the middle of class. Never.
Legislators tried the same disingenuous strategy with the Ten Commandments as well, but the “HOW IS THAT RELIGIOUS?!?” argument somehow didn’t stick with that one. Opening with “Thou shalt have no other gods before me” kinda gave it away.
So if these moments and postings and such are neutered, meaningless symbols, why do some legislators fight so hard to make them happen?
Conservatives have somehow persuaded a majority of religious voters that these little token victories – the ones that slide past First Amendment concerns specifically because they lack substance – are somehow pushing Jesus back into public schools or securing God’s blessings on America. Mumbling “under God” or posting “In God We Trust” operates as a sort of code phrase, opening a spiritual portal for the Lord Almighty to swoop back in and take His rightful place in the big leather chair in the principal’s office. Statues become woodland creatures again, teenagers stop being interested in sex or any music recorded after 1957, and Common Core was never even invented, let alone mandated by many of these exact same legislators.
(OK, that last one wouldn’t be so bad.)
Let There Be (Gas)Light
In other words, the only reason to pass these laws is because those supporting them believe they ARE statements of faith. They DO matter in distinguishing America’s official religion (which they’re willing to pretend isn’t official in order to secure it as such) from all of those other belief systems (which have no place in public schools because of the First Amendment).
Religious legislators have learned to go through the motions of manufacturing pseudo-secular reasons for these theological breaches. They assert that a “moment of silence” rewrites the chemistry of the teenage brain each morning or that the Ten Commandments are purely historical context for the U.S. Constitution (despite the two having not so much as a single line in common). The trick is to do this while still celebrating the banishment of the White Witch from Narnia with their constituents, who believe their nation is so great and their God so powerful that neither can survive without such gestures.
Legislators aren't the only ones perfectly aware of the power of these little religious “victories.” They’re a reminder to anyone outside the cell group that they don’t belong. You atheists, Buddhists, Hindus, or Muslims, along with you LGBTQ+ teens and anyone else who isn’t showing proper deference to state-mandated religious and patriotic rituals – you can stay for now, but you are outsiders. You. Don’t. Count. And honestly, you’re ruining everything for the good people – the ones who believe and do the right things, in unison, whenever we’re told.
If you think I’m overstating it, go visit another country for a few years where the dominant culture is different than yours and send your kids to school there. Or just ask one of those gay or atheist types you don’t let your kids hang out with. Maybe they’ll try to explain it.
The Governor has about ten days from the time a bill is presented to either sign or veto it in Texas. You’ll know if it becomes law because you’ll hear a cock crow three times.