uno itinere non potest perveniri ad tam grande secretum -- Q. Aurelius Symmachus, 384 C.E.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

In Whose God?

Since the GOP-led U.S. House has deemed it necessary to reaffirm the Cold-War era U.S. motto, "In God We Trust," including in its resolution an encouragement to plaster the phrase anywhere and everywhere, I thought a column from my past as an editorialist might be in order. After all, if the Right is merely going to recycle its own wedge issues every five to ten years, I might as well just recycle my responses to them.

The following column was published on Jan. 23, 2002. As you can see, this issue isn't new. But a few of my views have changed or at least become more nuanced, as you can imagine. However, I leave the column as is here.

Mulling mottos: In whose God do we trust?

It often amuses me how many Christian fundamentalists are ready and willing to totally dilute their faith in an effort to win nominal battles in the struggle over the separation of church and state.

The latest campaign involves a pledge to place "In God We Trust" posters in every classroom and in every public building in America. No doubt the sight of these four words will effectively turn back the clock on social evolution and return us to those puritanical days when individual choice ha adn't yet mucked everything up and freedom of conscience hadn't yet destroyed Victorian morality.

The premise that the mere mention of God -- in such generic fashion -- somehow furthers the cause of the Christian Right is dubious but just a little fascinating. Here we have a group of folks who not only believe they worship the One True Religion, but also the correct and heaven-sanctioned practices and interpretations of that religion, and they've become content, even triumphant, about an ethereal and unspecified expression of God.

Perhaps it should be considered progress that those who walk the narrow path have become so inclusive, but my guess is they just haven't yet figured out that their latest foray into church-state matters does precisely what they hate most: reduces God to a common denominator.

It is true that the phrase now gracing classroom walls is the national motto and, like it or not, that means there is little chance of it being declared unconstitutional. But don't let people like the American Family Association's president, Donald E. Wildmon, fool you with talk of God being a "historical centrality in the life of our republic."

The truth is, "In God We Trust" didn't appear anywhere in official American documents until the last half of the 1800s, when a group opposed to church-state separation began a campaign to put them on coins. (You see, this isn't a new campaign after all, so it's hard to understand the "moral decline" argument about the last 40 years in connection to shielding church and state from each other.)

The group, the National Reform Association, finally succeeded in 1865 after pushing legislation through Congress allowing phrases to be placed on coins (previously phrases were prohibited).

This snowballed into the 20th century with a law passed by Congress requiring the motto on coins and finally with the adoption of "In God We Trust" as the national motto in 1956 in response to godless Communism. Despite assertions from folks like Wildmon, all coins up until 1865 were secular in nature and contained no references to God, opting for the more appropriate motto "E Pluribus Unum," Latin for "From Many, One."

Incidentally, my favorite part of the "In God We Trust" debate is when people like Wildmon point to the $1 bill. In his remarks on the subject, the preacher asks snidely, "One wonders if the (American Civil Liberties Union) would threaten to sue should someone post a framed dollar bill in a classroom?"

Say, that sounds like a great idea: The $1 bill does, after all, say "In God We Trust" across the top. But if I were to answer my own compelling question -- whose God? -- based on the dollar, I'd have to say Horus, the ancient Egyptian sun god depicted in the eye hovering above the adjacent pyramid seal.

At any rate, several states have begun putting "In God We Trust" in classrooms and public buildings in response to the AFA's curious campaign. Mississippi, the home state of the AFA, went as far as passing legislation mandating the posting of "In God We Trust" in schools and government buildings.

The Rogers school district has made the signs -- printed by the AFA at $10 each -- available in its schools for teachers to post if they see fit. They were provided to the district by a donor at no cost, but someone surely paid the AFA for them. This might prove disconcerting to a few Rogers parents if they were to visit AFA's Web site, which outlines the organization's stances against church-state separation, Harry Potter, abortion (which one AFA contributor compares to slavery) and something they call "the homosexual agenda."

The AFA apparently thinks its poster crusade will provide them with a foot in the door to promote other Christian-right ideals. But if this is the best they can do, I'm not worried.

I'm all for trusting in God, but I still can't get past that fundamental question: In whose God do we trust? I surely don't trust in the God Wildmon and his compatriots point to, the one they use to justify prejudice, oppression and fear -- and neither does most of the rest of the country.

So whose God are we trusting? The God of Islam, Judaism, Christianity? The deity of one's choice from Hinduism or Wicca? Perhaps the God of consciousness in Eastern religions, or the Great Spirit of the Native Americans? Maybe the God that is man himself in Humanism?

Perhaps all of them.

What a wonderful lesson in inclusivity from our friends in the Religious Right.

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