Tuesday, November 5, 2013

"In God We Trust"

Reading the pros and cons proffered in Lancaster Newspapers’ article on a bill that would require Pennsylvania public schools to display the national motto “In God We Trust,” I’m struck by how disingenuous some of the arguments are on both sides. 

According to state Rep. Ryan Aument, House Bill 1728 is primarily pedagogical:

“We should use the national motto and the controversy behind this issue as a teaching point to engage students in debate,” he said. “By displaying the motto, it opens the door for educators to have that talk with students." 
Aument said the debate is less about religion and more about our history as a people.
"Our history is what it is, our founding documents say what they say and I think we should have an open and candid conversation with students about that fact," he said.

This is pretty much the standard line taken on public displays of religious symbols and texts, and with good reason: it’s the one justification that federal courts have countenanced, albeit narrowly and, some would argue, inconsistently. You can’t proselytize or endorse, but you can teach history and commemorate heritage.

But does anyone really believe legislators want to post four bare words on school walls, stripped of context, merely to improve historical understanding? If that were the motive, wouldn't there be better ways to proceed - say, by improving history standards or increasing class time? 

The bill’s opponents, on the other hand, have an equally implausible reason for fighting it. Scott Rhoades, founder of the Lancaster Freethought Society, and Hempfield School District Brenda Becker both argue, in part, that the measure should be opposed because of its cost:

"I certainly have no aversion to the national motto, but this is another situation where it will cost us precious resources to have these signs created and posted,” [Becker] said.

It’s good to be thrifty with the public purse, but let’s keep things in perspective. The bill calls for one plaque per school building – you can get a decent metal plaque online for about $100. (You can get this one for $9.99 if you’re OK with the addendum, “All others pay cash.”) Add in another $50 for labor, double the total to be on the safe side, and you’re talking maybe $300 per school. Out of a multi-million dollar school district budget, that’s a rounding error. No school is going to fail in its mission because of $300, or even $1,000. 
True, the bill might put school districts at risk of being sued by church-state separation activists. Those costs could quickly become big enough to matter. But the plaques themselves, not so much.

Here’s my theory: If you support placing the motto “In God We Trust” in public schools, it’s because you trust in God and think society would be better if everyone did.  If you oppose displaying the motto, it’s because you’re deeply suspicious of the coercive power of the state, and you think schools have better things to focus on than a religious dogma, even an attenuated, ecumenical one. The other arguments are just cover stories. 
Just for fun, let’s take a look at the history of “In God We Trust,” which the bill’s supporters say they are so anxious to inculcate. As HB 1728 strenuously emphasizes in its preamble, Pennsylvanian James Pollock was director of the U.S. Mint when the idea of putting God on our currency originated. Here’s the U.S. Treasury’s account:

Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase received many appeals from devout persons throughout the country, urging that the United States recognize the Deity on United States coins. From Treasury Department records, it appears that the first such appeal came in a letter dated November 13, 1861. It was written to Secretary Chase by Rev. M. R. Watkinson, Minister of the Gospel from Ridleyville, Pennsylvania, [Why does Watkinson not get a shout-out in HB 1728? – ts] and read:
Dear Sir: You are about to submit your annual report to the Congress respecting the affairs of the national finances. 
One fact touching our currency has hitherto been seriously overlooked. I mean the recognition of the Almighty God in some form on our coins.
You are probably a Christian. What if our Republic were not shattered beyond reconstruction? Would not the antiquaries of succeeding centuries rightly reason from our past that we were a heathen nation? What I propose is that instead of the goddess of liberty we shall have next inside the 13 stars a ring inscribed with the words PERPETUAL UNION; within the ring the allseeing eye, crowned with a halo; beneath this eye the American flag, bearing in its field stars equal to the number of the States united; in the folds of the bars the words GOD, LIBERTY, LAW.
So, Chase was influenced by people who thought it was important to let future historians know we were a Christian country. Hmm.

Anyway, Chase sent Pollock a letter telling him to develop a motto "expressing in the fewest and tersest words" the nation's trust in the Almighty. Pollock proposed the mottoes “Our Country; Our God” and “God, Our Trust.” Chase amended those to “Our God and Our Country” and “In God We Trust.” Incidentally, that means Chase, not Pollock gave the motto its final form. That's a detail HB 1728 gets wrong. It says, "Pollock suggested the motto 'In God We Trust' be featured on all United States currency." He didn't; his version was "God, Our Trust."

Here’s a fun fact about Pollock. He was a member of the National Reform Association, or NRA, a group formed during the Civil War and devoted to founding U.S. governance on explicitly Christian principles. Here’s how the NRA proposed rewriting the preamble to the Constitution:
"We the people of the United States, humbly acknowledging Almighty God as the source of all authority and power in civil government, the Lord Jesus Christ as the Ruler among the nations, and His revealed will as the supreme law of the land… ..." 
Take that, heathens! The NRA’s proposal did not succeed, but its purpose lives on today among the Christian dominionists.

If I put an NPR or a Fox bumper sticker on my car, you can assume I generally endorse NPR or Fox. I'm not just reminding you that NPR or Fox exist or that they have a particular history. The same is all the more true when public entities display symbols and slogans. Their display is never just pedagogy, absent some indication that makes the pedagogical function explicit. 

At root, the “we're just teaching history” move is the same one resorted to by creationists – the “teach the controversy” gambit. Creationism is Christian literalism gussied up as science … but if schools teach the controversy, partisans will argue, they’re not “endorsing” religion per se. That notion doesn’t pass the smell test, and it doesn’t pass it in this case, either.

No, the controversy really does comes down to whether you think public schools should be in the business of promoting (a trust in) God or not. The notion that this is about teaching history and tradition is a Trojan Horse. 

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