“In God We Trust” on the money. “Under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance. Creches and crosses on public land. Religious mottos on public buildings. Prayers starting public government meetings. Prayers in the public schools. If you didn’t know better, you’d think the religious right was right, and the United States really was a Christian nation.
Of course it’s not. The United States is a secular nation. The principle that citizens have the right to reach their own conclusions about religion, and that government should stay out of that choice, is deeply enshrined in the foundation of our government, in the First Amendment and elsewhere. This separation of state and church was not accidental or an oversight — it was written into the Constitution by careful, conscious choice, made against significant pushback. And the country has citizens who are Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, Wiccan, “spiritual but not religious,” many other religions — plus, of course, citizens without any religion at all.
Yet what often gets called “ceremonial deism” is all over our government. Now, when this “ceremonial deism” get challenged in court, it typically gets defended — and is often even upheld by judges — on the grounds that it isn’t really religious. In court, its defenders argue that all this God talk is obviously just tradition, without any actual religious meaning. (How could you silly people think that “God” means something religious?) But when you look at the ideas and motivations driving this “ceremonial deism,” it becomes clear that it’s anything but secular. Passionate religious belief is driving every one of these battles. It wouldn’t be defended so fiercely if real religious fervor weren’t behind it. And every one of these “ceremonial” incursions of religion into government gets used — on the ground, in tangible, real-world ways — to marginalize non-believers, and to treat them as second-class citizens.
Here are four ways the concept of God gets into government — and pushes atheist citizens to the sidelines.
1: “In God We Trust” on the money. You probably already heard about Florida Senator Marco Rubio’s speech at the Republican National Convention. The one where he said:
Our national motto is “In God We Trust,” reminding us that faith in our Creator is the most important American value of all.
Faith in our creator. The most important American value of all.
Is there any way to read that other than as a deliberate slap at atheists? Is there any way to read this other than, “If you don’t believe in God, you’re not a good American”?
Rubio’s speech was far from an outlier. The fact that the national motto is “In God We Trust” — and the fact that this motto is on the money — gets used against atheists all the time. And it typically gets used in a very circular-reasoning, catch-22 way. We’re told that America is a Christian nation… and the national motto proves it. And our demands that the motto be changed are decried… on the grounds that this is a Christian nation. The motto itself is used as evidence for why it should be the motto.
And if atheists do spend money with “In God We Trust” on it? We get called hypocrites for doing so. This sentiment shows up all over the place, from Internet forums to news story comment threads to Fox News. As just one example among so very many: When high school atheist Jessica Ahlquist protested her public school having a prayer banner in the auditorium, a woman in her town called her an “idiot,” saying, “If you don’t believe in that, take all the money out of your pocket, because every dollar bill says, ‘In God We Trust.'”
It’s another catch-22. We have two choices: A) We spend official currency that claims trust in a god we don’t believe in, currency that reminds us we’re second-class citizens… and get called hypocrites for doing so. Or B) We opt out of the cash economy entirely… thus making ourselves into second-class citizens in a whole different way. I’ve even seen it argued that atheists don’t really exist and aren’t actually atheists… because “no respectable atheist would walk around with something in his pocket that said ‘In God We Trust.'” As if we had a choice in the matter. As if using cash to pay for our coffee in the morning unilaterally negates the serious thought and consideration that most atheists have put into the question of whether God exists. And this idea didn’t come from a raving right-winger, either. It came from someone who was otherwise arguing for pluralism, and defending atheists’ right to run for public office. The idea is pervasive: the fact that the national motto is “In God We Trust,” and the fact that this motto is on money that atheists spend, gets used as proof that atheists are insincere, hypocritical, and dishonest.
And this motto isn’t just a slap at atheist Americans, either. It’s also a slap at Americans who are religious but who aren’t monotheistic: Hindus or indigenous people who believe in multiple gods, Buddhists or New Agers who believe in spirituality but don’t believe in any gods. And it’s an ugly slap at religious believers who aren’t Americans. This idea that religious faith equals American patriotism, and vice versa… it treats religious belief as if it were something that Americans made up all by themselves upon the signing of the Declaration of Independence, and it plays into xenophobic nationalism, treating non-Americans as untrustworthy because they’re not godly.
This, by the way, is one of the main reasons I cross “In God We Trust” off my money. You can do that, too. Whether you’re an atheist or not… if you think the United States government should not be endorsing or otherwise establishing religion, and should not be forcing its citizens to endorse religion whether they believe in it or not, then keep a Sharpie in your bag, and scratch out the motto on all your bills. (No, it’s not illegal.) Of course, when we do that, we get called “hard-core activists.” (3:08 on the video.) Not that that term should be an insult… but it shows the depths of this unwinnable catch-22. Spend the money with the motto, and we’re hypocrites; cross the motto off the money, and we’re extremists.
2: Prayer in public schools. Yes, it’s illegal. No duh. It happens anyway, in school districts across the country.
And when students push back against it, they typically get harassed, abused, vilified, threatened, and more.
Damon Fowler. Asked his public high school to not have an illegal prayer at his graduation; was hounded, ostracized by his community, publicly demeaned by one of his teachers, physically threatened, and kicked out of his home by his parents. Matthew LaClair. Recorded and reported on his public high school teacher preaching in the classroom; was bullied, harassed, and threatened by fellow students, while the school administration did nothing, told LaClair’s father that what went on in his son’s classroom was none of his business, and focused their efforts instead on adopting a policy barring students from recording what happened in their classes. Jessica Ahlquist. Asked her public high school to take an illegal prayer banner out of the school auditorium; was bullied, ostracized, called an “evil little thing” by her state representative, and targeted with multiple threats of brutal violence, rape, and death.
Think about that. And then tell me that this “ceremonial deism” has nothing to do with religion. Tell me that it has no tangible harmful effect on atheists. Tell me that prayer in the schools doesn’t convey a clear message that non-believers are outsiders, not fully part of the community, and that they’d better keep their heads down and their mouths shut if they want to stay safe.
3: “Under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance. See “Prayer in public schools” above. Having “Under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance is prayer in the public schools. Period.
Oh, and for anyone insisting that all this ceremonial deism is just “tradition”: The Pledge of Allegiance was written in 1892. The phrase “under God” was added in 1954. Opponents of “under God” in the Pledge aren’t undermining tradition — they’re trying to restore it.
4: Prayers starting public government meetings. It’s not just the public schools. All over the United States — from New York to North Carolina, from Delaware to Indiana, city council meetings, county board meetings, school board meetings, government trainings, and other official government events are started with prayers. Not just supposedly non-sectarian prayers, either: these are specific prayers to specific gods of specific religions. Usually Jesus. Heck — the United States even has a National Day of Prayer.
Why does this matter? Because, as Americans United for Separation of Church and State puts it, “Government should treat all of its citizens equally. No American should be made to feel like a second-class citizen on the basis of what he or she believes (or does not believe) about God or religion.” Because, as U.S. 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Guido Calabresi put it, “an objective, reasonable person would believe that the town’s prayer practice had the effect of affiliating the town with Christianity.” Because, as U.S. District Judge Leonard P. Stark put it, it ” gives Christianity an unconstitutionally preferred status, sending a message to meeting attendees that the Council is promoting the beliefs of Christianity.” Because, as Freedom From Religion Foundation staff attorney Patrick Elliott put it, “Sectarian prayers make religious minorities and nonbelievers feel like political outsiders in their own community, and show an unconstitutional governmental preference for Christianity over other faiths and for religion over non-religion.”
And because state-sponsored prayer doesn’t just impinge on the freedom of atheists. It impinges on the freedom of all Americans to come to their own conclusions about religion, and to practice whatever religion they like, without pressure of any kind from the government. As senior federal District Judge Barbara Crabb put it, “The same law that prohibits the government from declaring a National Day of Prayer also prohibits it from declaring a National Day of Blasphemy.” Congress may no more declare a National Day of Prayer than it “may encourage citizens to fast during the month of Ramadan, attend a synagogue, purify themselves in a sweat lodge or practice rune magic. It is because the nature of prayer is so personal and can have such a powerful effect on a community that the government may not use its authority to try to influence any individual’s decision whether and when to pray.”
Are these the most pressing problems facing the nation? No. Of course not. They’re not even the most pressing problems facing the atheist movement.
But that doesn’t make them trivial.
Symbolic issues can have a significant impact. Employers requiring women to wear makeup wasn’t the most pressing problems facing the women’s movement… but most people understand why it was a fight worth fighting. Segregated drinking fountains and lunch counters weren’t the most pressing problems facing the civil rights movement… but most people understand why they were deeply troubling and needed to end. President Obama saying same-sex marriage should be legal had zero effect on same-sex couples’ legal rights… but most people understand why the President’s statement mattered, and mattered enormously.
When you are told every day of your life that you are less than human, by your community and indeed by your government, it takes a toll. And when people who already think you’re less than human get a thumbs-up on that attitude from the government that supposedly represents all of you, it reinforces those terrible attitudes, and makes people feel safer acting them out.
“Ceremonial deism” is neither. It is not “deism,” a vague belief in a nebulous and ineffective god: it is the specific advocacy by the government of very specific religious views. And it is far more than just “ceremonial.” It has real-world effects. It hurts people. It sticks a giant target on the backs of atheists, and others with non-mainstream religious beliefs… a target that tells the world, “Kick me. The government says it’s okay.”
It has to stop.