In a recent Sunday New York Times column, Thomas Friedman opined about the advantages of pluralism over separatism in sociopolitical organization. He mentioned the official motto of the United States, e pluribus unum. When I was a child, I learned that motto; in school it was discussed with respect to the successful efforts of our founders to create a single nation out of thirteen former colonies, one powerful body politic comprised of diverse points of view and interests.
OK, now the truth, with appreciation to Wikipedia. E pluribus unum was never declared by Congress to be the national motto, though it was part of the Seal of the United States, adopted in 1782 by the soon-to-be-retired Continental Congress and had been on money since 1975. (Those dates are prior to the country’s founding on June 21, 1788.) However, for many decades it seems to have been informally but widely accepted to be the national motto. Then President Eisenhower and the Congress, reacting to the pairing of “Communism” and “godless” in the mid-1950s, decided the U. S. should advertise its godliness by (a) formally adopting “In God We Trust” as the official motto and (b) inserting “under God” into the pledge of allegiance. The pledge in various forms had existed since it was written by Francis Bellamy and/or James Upham in 1892 (which or both is uncertain; what is certain is that it did not mix patriotism with religion).
Since in those days, the United States had no atheists, agnostics, or gays (like Iran half a century later according to President Ahmadinejad!), it escaped the notice of virtually everyone that the national piety pronouncement in the 1950s was a rejection of a significant part of unum. Well, some did notice and a few of them challenged the motto legally, claiming the Congress and President had violated the U. S. Constitution’s prohibition against governmental “establishment of religion.”
The federal court system had the same uncanny ability then as now to look at a Christian cross in a national park and see only a secular symbol, or look at a city council’s opening prayer and see only a traditional practice with no religious significance. In that vein, the late 1970s SCOTUS ruled, “It is quite obvious that the national motto and the slogan on coinage and currency ‘In God We Trust’ has nothing whatsoever to do with the establishment of religion. Its use is of a patriotic or ceremonial character and bears no true resemblance to a governmental sponsorship of a religious exercise.”
Thus the pledge that embodied citizens’ loyalty to their country despite their beliefs about religion became a religious pledge as well. Up to 1 in 10 Americans now don’t believe the pledge-named god even exists, much less that the United States is “under” him, her, or it. And the percentage of Americans who don’t wish to get their religious sentiments mixed up with their patriotism are a larger group still. It should come as no surprise, of course, that the larger religion lobby thinks as much government sponsored religion as possible is just the right thing to do.
There is, to my knowledge, neither evidence nor slight indication that proclaiming “under God” and “in God we trust” lead to a better country in any discernable way except to please theocrats and to be dragged out as “evidence” for America’s being a Christian country. There is evidence that a substantial and growing minority of Americans do not share the majority’s view that the country has supernatural oversight that must be appeased. And there is evidence that atheist and agnostic children suffer the same exclusion dynamics that Jewish children formerly did when their school room became a weekday Christian Sunday school. (I was there.)
Unum, indeed. But, hey, do those six little words matter that much? Do freethinkers and their religious colleagues who advocate for church-state separation just make too much of them? Are we just whining?
The American Family Association, with $18,000,000 annual revenue is one of the ten largest Christian right organizations. It claims to operate nearly 200 radio stations nationwide for the purpose “to promote the Biblical ethic of decency in America.” Bryan Fischer, its Director of Issue Analysis for Government and Public Policy, said this on Focal Point in September 2011: “The purpose of the First Amendment is to protect the free exercise of the Christian religion. Founding Fathers did not intend to preserve religious liberty for non-Christians [italics mine, JC].”
How far will theocrats like Fischer go not only to destroy the unum, but to destroy religious freedom itself? What happens to the freedom of Jews, Mormons, Christian Scientists, and others (not to mention Muslims and atheists), when religious liberty is shrunk to include only what Mr. Fischer’s organization decides is religion that deserves freedom?
Not shocking enough? Perhaps an opinion expressed by someone more consequential than Fischer will more forcefully make my point. Speaking in 1988, George H. W. Bush, President of the United States—not some Bible-hyped television evangelist—made this statement: “I don’t know that atheists should be considered as citizens, nor should they be considered patriots. This is one nation under God [italics mine, JC].”
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