By Rev. Chris Andersen
Throughout the course of my wanderings, the subject of religion and government has occasionally reared its head in discussions with friends, family, classmates, etc. While talking about the merits and negatives of including “In God We Trust” on our currency, I noticed a common statement: “It’s just four words. What does it matter?” The same is said concerning the phrase “One Nation Under God” in our pledge. On the surface, I may agree. My worry is that it will not end at just four words. So where will it end?
Hmmm, time for a brief history lesson:
A Gospel Minister, Rev. M. R. Watkinson, sent a letter in November 1861 to the Secretary of the Treasury. This was a time when religious fervor was en vogue during the Civil War. In the letter, Rev. Watkinson pleaded his case (from one Christian to another) that U.S. currency should recognize all mighty god in some form.
An excerpt from his letter:
“… no possible citizen could object. This would relieve us from the ignominy of heathenism. This would place us openly under the Divine protection we have personally claimed. From my hearth I have felt our national shame in disowning God as not the least of our present national disasters.”
Within seven days of the original letter, the Secretary of the Treasury set about the process of devising a motto to include on the nation’s coins. In God We Trust first appeared on U.S. coins three years later in 1864. The motto’s appearance on our coins came and went… and came and went… and well, you get the point. That changed during the McCarthy period when in 1956 the President approved a law passed by Congress which made IN GOD WE TRUST our national motto. Beginning the following year, our new national motto would be printed on U.S. currency… coin AND paper.
The passing of this law came on the heels of another landmark event. Congress added the words “under god” to the pledge of allegiance two years earlier in 1954. One of the arguments of the day was that reasonable people should not object to the addition of just two words (sounds remarkably similar to what the reverend had said nearly 100 years earlier).
A decade later, government and religion were back on the front pages. The non-theist population started asserting its voice. An Atheist mother was enraged that her tax money was being used to buy bibles for public schools. Worse than that was the mandate that her son would take part in bible readings and prayer while attending school. When her son opted out, he was beaten by his classmates while the school officials turned a blind eye. The mother brought suit against the board of education. In a nearly unanimous decision (8-1), the Supreme Court agreed that mandatory bible readings and school prayer were unconstitutional.
In the years since, many have argued that the establishment clause of the constitution either does not exist or does not apply because of past precedent. What precedent you may ask? You guessed it… Government endorsement of religion on U.S. currency, Government endorsement of religion through our national motto, Government endorsement of religion in our official pledge of allegiance.
People who want religion integrated more into our government / education / society often claim that a few liberal judges have hijacked the legal system and are legislating from the bench. This argument just doesn’t hold water. Judges have pointed to the establishment clause consistently over many decades. These are not isolated cases involving a few radical judges. The dual protections of the first amendment have been cited by dozens of courts and judges over a sustained period of time. Both liberal judges as well as ultra-conservative judges have pointed to the constitutional protections in their findings.
By keeping phrases such as “in god we trust” and “under god” in our official government psyche, we keep the door open for fundamentalists to claim precedent. The fight is ongoing to bring organized prayer and bible readings back into public schools. If the religious wing manages to get that through somehow, do you think they will be satisfied? They weren’t satisfied with having coins minted with “in god we trust”. They weren’t satisfied with having a religious national motto. They were not satisfied with making every citizen in the country acknowledge a god in order to pledge their allegiance to this nation and its flag.
If they gain momentum, what will be next? Will they once again start banning any books that are not in agreement with the bible? Strike classes from school curriculum which do not conform to biblical stories? This is not much of a stretch, but what will be next? Will we start enforcing more laws from the bible? Start snuffing out any atheistic movements as well as Wiccans and Satanists? After that we may move on to tell Muslims that they have their own countries they can live in. After all, this is a nation founded on CHRISTIAN principles. If we do not stay vigilant in the protection of the separation principles of the first amendment, we could end up like the people of England before the settlement of America; being forced to adhere to a narrow religious interpretation. This may not include Mormons. It may not include Jews. It may not include Protestants if the government happens to follow catholic principles instead. It is in everyone’s — religious or not — best interest to maintain a strict separation of church and state. By allowing religion into the government business, we allow government into religious business. I don’t think anyone really wants that.