In God We Trust?

Well, as always, seventy-five years pass between each blog post.  But, I have a little bit of a break from work (and work) and (finally) got around to reading the CFI (Center for Inquiry) take on H. CON. RES. 13, which “reaffirms ‘In God We Trust’ as the official motto of the United States and supports and encourages the public display of the national motto in all public buildings, public schools, and other government institutions.”

Now, I generally find it a waste of time to get all bent out of shape over these kinds of more-or-less trivial issues, and, if I’m being honest, I don’t feel overly upset about the idea of “In God We Trust” being the motto of the United States.  Certainly, I oppose it: it makes a claim for all Americans that has nothing to do with our loyalty to our country, and while it ostensibly remains vague on the definition of God — it does not say, “In Yahweh We Trust,” or “In The God of Such and Such Christian Denomination We Trust” — it’s clear from the wording of the bill which god they’re alluding to. CFI’s CEO says, “This proposed resolution is a slap in the face not only of the nonreligious, but also of every American who supports the constitutionally mandated separation of church and state,” and I agree with that, except I’m either more apathetic or less militant.

Ultimately, I have nothing personally to lose from the passing of such a bill other than a moment of time wasted on the mild annoyance I might feel walking in to a public building.

There are a few points to be made, though.  First, it seems silly to spend Congress’s time on such a bill when there are a myriad of more pressing, vital issues which need attending.  Though, if the country’s motto and God are both really important issues to someone, they might see this as a relevant issue.  Second, though I’m not personally greatly offended by seeing “In God We Trust” on, say, the nation’s money, it can be argued, as implied above, that making this kind of generalized declarative statement infringes on what should be a non-religious government.

Certainly, such a motto is better than, say, “In Jesus of Nazareth We Trust,” or, “In Mohammad the Prophet We Trust,” but it’s still a religious claim, and canonizing it (or continuing its canonization) in federal law is, at best, suspect.

The bill is short, and I won’t get in to every line, but there’s a few premeses that I wanted to address.  (The full bill can be read here.)

Whereas the sentiment, ‘In God We Trust’, has been an integral part of United States society since its founding;

Argument from antiquity.  And the aptness of the word “integral” is probably debatable.  The bill mentions ‘the sentiment’ because, of course, “In God We Trust” wasn’t officially adopted as the national motto until 1956, at which time the US was embroiled in the Cold War, fighting a communism that promoted atheism (though it should be noted that the two are not mutually dependent).   I don’t contend that most if not all of the white, male, slave-owning founding fathers (is that poising the well?  Probably.  In any case, slave ownership wouldn’t contradict the god of the Bible, anyway) fell somewhere between a removed deism and a fundamental Christianity.  But to argue that simply because something was a certain way in the past makes it, therefore, correct and appropriate for current times, is a logical fallacy.

Whereas in times of national challenge or tragedy, the people of the United States have turned to God as their source for sustenance, protection, wisdom, strength, and direction;

Sure, there’s some truth to this in a general sense — throughout all of history, people of all cultures and religions have turned to (and/or created) gods as a means of coping with difficult situations or unexplainable phenomena.  Zeus explained lightening to the ancient Greeks, and I contend that most Christians wouldn’t disagree that these people created a god to deal with their inability to understand and control nature.   There’s nothing out of the ordinary about that.  But, again, arguing that because some (perhaps most) citizens of this country have found comfort in a bronze-age mythology in difficult times necessarily requires that mythology to be adopted as official language by the government is, in my opinion, a non sequitur.  Certainly, it’s unlikely that one could produce evidence that God has actually provided “sustenance, protection, wisdom, strength, and direction,” but they’re only claiming that people turned to God for these things, not that he actually provided them.

[Man, this bill really isn’t that long, and I’m tempted to comment on every line.  But this blog is already getting long, so I’ll skip some.  But, if anyone comments and points something else out in omitted lines, I’ll gladly address it.]

Whereas the oath taken by all Federal employees, except the President, states ‘I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter. So help me God.’;

Interesting that the most important office is exempt.  I actually didn’t know that until reading this bill.  So, thanks, guys!  In any case, I say things like, “Oh, my God!” or, “Jesus Christ!” as swears.  We could put this under the umbrella of the genetic fallacy: simply because the phrase “So help me God” began as, perhaps, an appeal to a specific deity, it has become something less specific.  I might use the phrase “so help me God” as a colloquialism to mean, essentially, “I’m not f*****ng around here, pal.”  I’m sure that won’t convince people who seize on to any mention of God in anything official, but that’s how it seems to me.

Whereas John Adams said, ‘Statesmen may plan and speculate for Liberty, but it is Religion and Morality alone, which can establish the Principles upon which Freedom can securely stand.’;

Quote mining.  Also, John Adams was one dude; Jefferson cut up the Bible because there was a lot of stuff in it he wasn’t down with.  Additionally: argument from authority.  I won’t contend that Adams isn’t an important historical figure; I won’t contend that he wasn’t instrumental in the development of this nation.  But simply because he had an opinion about something a few hundred years ago should not have much bearing on what we choose to do with our nation today.

Whereas if religion and morality are taken out of the marketplace of ideas, the very freedom on which the United States was founded cannot be secured;

This is probably the most frustrating bit to me.  It does not follow that by no longer having “In God We Trust” as our national motto that therefore religion and morality are taken out of the marketplace.  No one is saying you can’t believe what you want to believe; that you can’t tell people about it; that you can’t argue that your religion is superior or more correct that other religions; that you can’t have discussions on religion, morality, ethics, or anything else you’d like; that people shouldn’t be allowed to trust in God if they want to.  If anything, the marketplace is more open to religion and morality and ethics if one particular set of them aren’t canonized into federal law.  In my opinion, the authors of this bill defeat themselves here by making the exact point that condemns them: if nothing else, the United States was based on an imperfect freedom that has continued to improve (e.g. black rights, womens rights, gay rights, etc., that were not rights at all when the country was founded but either are or are in the processes of becoming so now).  Thus, by making the religious beliefs of one (albeit large) portion of society as our national motto, if anything, reduces freedom.  (I don’t think it really reduces freedom that much, since it’s not making me believe in God,  but it certainly doesn’t make the marketplace more open.)

I could write pages on this, though they probably wouldn’t be very good.  Anyway, last bit:

Whereas President John F. Kennedy said, ‘The guiding principle and prayer of this Nation has been, is now, and ever shall be ‘In God We Trust.’

Well, balls: if JF-fucking-K said it, it must be both true as well as law. Again, it’s a simple argument from authority mixed with an argument from antiquity.

This whole thing is shallow and hollow, in my opinion.  But people have a really, really strong feeling that America is supposed to be a Christian nation, and they’ll ignore logic and reason wholesale, so long as they get to keep they’re motto.

Well, let them have it.  I’ll just keep ignoring it.  Maybe I’m being a little soft on the subject: Ron Lindsay, CEO of CFI is certainly actively opposed to the legislation.  But he says this, which I love, and which will close out this blog.

God—if there is one—does not need the government as a publicist.

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