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In God We Trust?

In God we Trust, With the House's Help

The U.S. House recently passed a resolution reaffirming that "In God We Trust" is America's national motto. What's most astounding about this, after the fact that it was already the national motto (I honestly thought that was an urban legend, in the sam category as the belief that "God helps those who help themselves" was a Bible verse), is the proportion of "yea" votes. 396 votes in favor, 28 abstentions, and just 9 against. Those nine deserve a thank you, so I will mention them by name:

  • Gary Ackerman, D-New York
  • Justin Amash, R-Michigan
  • Judy Chu, D-California
  • Emanuel Cleaver, D-Missouri
  • Mike Honda, D-California
  • Hank Johnson, D-Georgia
  • Jerrold Nadler, D-New York
  • Bobby Scott, D-Virginia
  • Pete Stark, D-California


I'm actually quite proud of my state, that we had two of the nine "nay" votes, even as I'm ashamed of my country for passing this thing.

For those readers who aren't familiar with American government, a resolution is different from a law. It's just a statement of what the Congress believes or wants to say and doesn't, officially, have any force of law. So a resolution that Americans should eat more beets wouldn't actually require threat, or impose a penalty (say) on people who didn't purchase a certain amount or on supermarkets who gave yams a more prominent placement. But in this case, the resolution's advocates do hope it will have a practical effect. From the Times piece:

“What’s happened over the last several years is that we have had a number of confusing situations in which some who don’t like the motto have tried to convince people not to put it up,” Mr. Forbes said in an interview.

“Some public officials have stated incorrectly that there are different national mottoes,” he added. “We heard the president make that mistake.”</blockquote>

I can easily see a bureaucrat going further than he otherwise would have in allowing the motto up on some building, because the country's leading legislative body said this was officially our motto, and who are they to say differently? But the practical consequences of this aren't nearly as bad, I don't think, as the metaphorical slap across the head this vote was to America's atheists, agnostics, secular humanists, and nonreligious people of all persuasions.

And, coincidentally, to religious people like me. I don't strain against this vote because I think our country has better things to do and ask how many jobs this resolution had created. That's essentially Jon Stewart's attack, which is pretty funny (as usual) but besides the point. If Congress had gone the other way and said we need to affirm that America is a country where all people are equally free to join our community irregardless of their faiths or lacks thereof, I would be cheering them along. I actually do think that the first roll of government is not to help the economy but to safeguard everyone's rights, and if we had to choose today between debating a tax holiday and whether to protect freedom of assembly, it's quite obvious to me which the government should concern itself with first.

So, since the representatives could only find nine people willing to say this wasn't cool, and even then they seemed to dwell on the fact that the resolution was a distraction from the all-important business of job-creation rather than something fundamentally wrong, let me explain why I find this motto so offensive. I say this as someone who considers herself a Christian, though lately I seem to have more in common with the free-thought crowd than I do with members of my own religion. (More on that, one of these days...) But as to the matter at hand:

First: America does not trust in God. We execute those we have good reason to believe are innocent [Troy Davis], and we do it without insistence on witnesses and public, impartial examination [Osama bin-Laden]. Large numbers of us cheer at the prospect of executions or of the uninsured not receiving adequate medical care. Our bipartisan suggestion to reduce our own debt is to cut down international aid where it saves lives. These are not "holy" causes, and it is entirely possible to disagree with them and still be a good person or a Christian; but the attitude that I see motivating them has more to do with Ayn Rand's teachings than Jesus', Moses's, Mohammed's, Buddha's, or anyone of that ilk.

Second: Nor should Americans want to trust in God - at least not in the way that jumps to mind. It is our job to feed the poor, cloth the naked, see to education and character-building and all the rest. I don't want us to treat these obligations like the man in the flood who kept insisting that God would save him. Or, for that matter, like the climate change deniers who insist God will never allow the world to be destroyed. We are not children who are incapable of ordering our society in a way that sees everyone's needs are met justly. In fact, to the extent that government comes from God, I'd say its purpose is to make sure we don't have to rely on God directly, but that we can order things well.

Thirdly: Most Americans do not use God in the same way I do. It is offensive to me as a religious person to see God turned into some kind of bland catch-all, that Jews and Muslims and the rest can call claim to. Not only shouldn't they have to put their trust in what I mean when I say the word God in order to be Americans, in fact they don't. And that's okay in the sense that I can still work with them as an American. That's part of what's great about America, and why freedom of religion is so important. But please, don't pretend like even all Christians have the same thing in mind when they talk about God, much less all Americans.

All of this is in addition to the obvious objections I felt on behalf of my atheist friends, and those religious friends who like to keep their religion out of their government (and vice versa).

So Congress: boo on you.

This entry was originally posted at http://fidesquaerens.dreamwidth.org/20220.html. Please comment there using OpenID.

Comments

( 4 comments — Leave a comment )
roh_wyn
Nov. 7th, 2011 05:22 am (UTC)
Most Americans do not use God in the same way I do. It is offensive to me as a religious person to see God turned into some kind of bland catch-all, that Jews and Muslims and the rest can call claim to.

It's interesting you phrased it that way, because that's exactly why Jefferson and Madison were so insistent on the religious freedom aspects of the First Amendment. They felt that each person had something of a personal relationship with God--I think Jefferson referred to it as a kernel of the holy spirit in each man's heart, or something like that--and that to impose a national religion would tarnish that personal relationship.

I think that was a pretty good rule to live by in 1789 and it still is today.

OT, but as a theological matter, aren't Christians, Jews and Muslims all making reference to same entity when they use the term "God"? I guess I'm asking how it is that they're not using God in the way you are (out of curiosity and not to be argumentative, fwiw).
telperion1
Nov. 9th, 2011 09:15 pm (UTC)
I think our Founding Fathers were pretty smart dudes, honestly. In this area more than others. I am not sure that all religious people can be religious completely in private, in the sense that a religious person may carry his ethics with him and so may choose to pray or eat kosher at certain times or dress a certain way, even in public. But that's a very different thing than saying the public institutions should any way shape the religion. Or even that other people should.

In a certain sense, Jews, Christians, and Muslims *do* believe they are worshipping the same God. Jews thought they identified an actual entity, which the Christians recognized but said the Jews had mischaracterized or just not understood completely, and then the Muslims came along and did the same thing. But I think that our *understandings* of God are quite different, so my description of God - how I use the term - should be different than what a Muslim or a Jew would mean by the term. So in that sense I think they are different.
ithilwen
Nov. 11th, 2011 03:52 pm (UTC)
I've always felt the proper motto for the US is "E Pluribus Unum". But what the hell do I know?
marta_bee
Nov. 13th, 2011 03:50 am (UTC)
I looked into it when the whole story came up and apparently we have not one but three official national mottos. Never could find the third, or for that matter what the purpose or function of a national motto actually was...
( 4 comments — Leave a comment )

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