You know the motto. For generations it's stood on equal footing with the famous patriotic sayings of our nation's revolution, yet this motto comes not out of revolutionary times, but out of the relatively modern movement of religious fundamentalism. "In God We Trust" -- so says every dollar bill we spend, every nickel and dime we save. Is it true? Is the American economy really founded upon trust in God? Furthermore, is this deeply religious slogan consistent with the statement early in the Bill of Rights that government establishment of religion must never occur?
In an abstract sense, atheists, agnostics, humanists and other freethinkers are united in their answer to these questions: NO! When it comes to their support for the principle separation of church and state, freethinking Americans stand united. Once it becomes necessary to defend this principle, however, freethinkers usually split into two camps with two contrary strategies. This split is reflected in the widely divergent strategies freethinkers advocate for addressing the problem of religious slogans scrawled upon the currency of a supposedly secular state.
First, there are the assimilationists. These freethinkers regard the separation of church and state as an ideal which will probably never be fully realized. They are accutely aware of the minority status of Americans who choose not to live within the intellectual confinement of religion, and so they do their best to play it safe.
Assimilationists worry that if freethinkers make a big deal about infringements of First Amendment guarantees of freedom from government establishment of religion, the religious mainstream will retaliate with even stronger attacks upon the civil rights of non-believers. They urge other freethinkers to keep quiet and do their best to quietly try to fit in. Assimilationst freethinkers argue that we should save our efforts for what they call the "big battles", such as officially-sponsored prayer in public schools, overlooking other invasions of religion into government.
It doesn't really matter, claim the assimilationists, whether some state constitutions forbid the non-religious from holding public office. After all, those articles are rarely enforced. No one cares, they say, that religious holidays such as Christmas are officially observed by the government. After all, everyone loves to get Christmas presents and to have a day off from work. So what, they ask, if the federally-backed money that we all are compelled to use in order to survive is decorated with the official motto "In God We Trust"? It's better, the assimilationists say, not to anger the religious majority with resistance to every instance of violation of the separation of church and state. Rather, they argue, we should trust that our democratic form of government will protect freethinkers from zealous religious attempts to establish an American theocracy.
Countering the assimilationist freethinkers are the freethinkers who adhere to a vision of absolute protection of civil liberties. These freethinking civil libertarians argue that every violation of the separation of church and state is important and should be the object of vigorous protest. The truth is that, as a freethinker, I believe that I have no other rational choice but to agree. Here's why:
1. Political activism is not a zero-sum game. A zero-sum game is a situation in which a resource is available to be invested, but is available to be invested only as a whole, and therefore only by a single party. In common parlance, a zero-sum game is a competition in which the winner takes all and the loser takes a fall.
In a certain sense, political elections are zero-sum games. However, political activism is not a zero-sum game because the energy that fuels activism comes from a variety of sources and is theoretically unlimited. Just because a person supports one political cause does not mean that that person cannot support another cause. Of course, there is a limit to the amount of personal resources a person can commit, but that doesn't mean that one cause suffers when another one receives support. The fact freethinkers oppose the Christian motto "In God We Trust" does not mean that freethinkers support the teaching of evolution any less.
In fact, there's good reason to believe that support for the principle of separation of church and state in one area actually strengthens support for the principle in other areas. As a matter of civil rights, the separation of church and state is an all-or-nothing issue: either there is separation or there isn't. The First Amendment doesn't dictate that there be very little government establishment of religion, or only government establishment of religion that doesn't go very far, or just government establishment of religion that doesn't bother the majority. The First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States of America says that no law shall be made which enables the governmental establishment of religion. That's an absolute statement that is either followed absolutely or not followed at all. Any violation of the separation of church and state sets a precedent for other violations.
Think about it. How many times have you heard a zealous Christian claim that the United States is a Christian nation, citing the "In God We Trust Motto" as proof? It happens all the time. People who are unfamiliar with the Bill of Rights are nonetheless very familiar with the big words printed on their money. To them, the joining of the government with religion is clear, and the arguments of civil libertarians sound like nonsense. In this way, all violations of the separation of church and state are linked, and an effort to combat one violation will support other efforts against other violations.
2. The presence of the words "In God We Trust" on American currency is not a minor issue. "It's just four words on a piece of paper," the assimilationists say. "It doesn't mean anything." Bull. If words mean so little, then why worry about the government pushing prayers on our kids? If words don't mean anything, then why not let Christian fundamentalists hide behind the pseudointellectual label "creation scientists"? If words are so unworthy of defense, then why bother about freedom of speech? For that matter, why concern ourselves with any of the words in that big long wordy document we call the Constitution of the United States of America? Words matter, and as long as we're shooting for a democratic form of government (Bug off, you libertarians who insist that we live in a republic, not a democracy - you're missing the point. A republic is a type of democracy.), the words that come from our government are most important because they're supposed to represent the will of the American people in a form compatible with the rights guaranteed by the Constitution. Those four little words, "In God We Trust", shatter the connection between the government and the Constitution, disregarding the First Amendment in the Bill of Rights, and therefore pose a serious threat to the democratic foundations of our society.
In the United States of America money is not, as the piously penitent would have us believe, the root of all evil. Rather, money is the root of all survival. Let's face it - for almost all of us, the times of living off the land as hunters, gatherers and farmers are long gone. We need money not just to earn social status, but to procure our most basic needs: food, shelter and the medicines to keep us well. When the U.S. Mint places the words "In God We Trust" on every piece of money it produces, it forces people to pay homage to Christianity in order to survive. Every financial transaction becomes a religious act of worship in tribute to the diety of one particular religious tradition. Even worse, it's this same God-loving money that is used to buy elected offices for political candidates. Without implicitly agreeing to the religious motto "In God We Trust", it's impossible for any American to join the government.
"God" is a Christian word, or at least a Judeo-Christian one. Muslims call their deity Allah. Hindus worship many gods by many names, but none of them are called "God". Buddhists seek enlightenment, not "God". Atheists, agnostics and the just plain irreligious reject the idea of God as a matter of conscience. Yet, each and every one of these groups is forced to pay homage to the God of Christianity every time they engage in a financial transaction with cash or coin. They have no choice but to give and accept money decorated with the prominent proclaimation that they and all other Americans trust in the Christian God.
What does it really mean for our money to proclaim that "In God We Trust"? It means that as far as the United States Treasury is concerned, our entire economy is based not on hard work or ingenuity, and certainly not upon the democratic cooperation of the American people, but rather upon faith in the Christian God. How absurd! Are we really to believe that it's only trust in a Christian God that keeps the stock market from crashing? If trust in God is the basis of our money, then why don't I just quit my job and trust in God full-time? If our nation's official financial motto is to believed, I'll become a lot richer if I do. Bah! Humbug! To claim that our money is based on trust in some God (who, I might add, has never bothered to show his face for a single day of work in any job in our country) is to insult the working people of this nation, and the working people of the world who contribute to our country's economic power.
In short, as long as the words "In God We Trust" are minted onto American currency, the United States of America operates as a theocracy in which agreement with Christian religious faith is required in order to hold office, or even to hold property. That's no minor matter.
3. Blending in won't solve the problem of government-sponsored religious bigotry. Assimilationist freethinkers acknowledge that the government's selection of "In God We Trust" as the official financial motto of the United States of America is contrary to the Constitutional promise of the separation of church and state. Nonetheless, they'd like to pretend that it doesn't exist. Even though they don't beleive in God, they argue against working to change the motto because they delude themselves into thinking that they can just ignore it. These freethinkers advise the rest of us to stay quiet and to wait until the time is right to voice our concerns about the existence of religious cheerleading on the most basic basic of government documents.
Pardon my impertinence, but when exactly will the time be right? Right now, there are trillions of pieces of coin and currency floating around all over the world declaring that the American people trust in God more than they trust in freedom. Are we supposed to believe that if we just lie low, things will somehow get better? Religious fundamentalists may be fuzzy in the head when it comes to the difference between reality and fantasy, but they're canny enough to know how that power is not power unless it is used. Christian conservatives do not sit back and wait for Jesus to come down from the skies in order to work towards their ultimate goal of control over the United States government. They act, and so we must counteract in order to regain our civil rights.
This is no time for freethinkers to be apologetic for their lack of faith in religion. With faith-based goons running the White House with the literal blessing of George W. Bush and Republicans in the majority in Congress, non-religious Americans are more vulnerable than they have been in generations. Freethinkers constitute somewhere between 10 and 20 of the American population, a small minority, but large enough to be heard if we choose to come out of the shadow of a nation cowering under God. No other group will speak for us. No one else will defend our rights. The time has come for those of us who do not trust in God to stand up and be counted.
There was a time when another motto found on our money held a more prominent place in the minds of Americans: E Pluribus Unum. For those of you who have forgotten, that's Latin for Out of Many, One. This motto can be interpreted in two very different ways. Christian conservatives like President Bush his followers in the Religious Right seem to believe that the E Pluribus Unum means that the government should coerce many different American modes of belief to unite into one official, government-sponsored religion (of course, this religion just happens to be their own, what they believe to be the one true faith). The founders of our nation, however, intended E Pluribus Unum to be interpreted in the opposite manner: as a motto of respect for diversity. They believed that for our democratic republic to succeed, the American people would have to be ensured the freedom of conscience and expression of conscience necessary to act as independent, constructive citizens. They believed that the preservation of the right to diverse opinions was the best foundation for ultimate American unity.
Is the United States of America truly based in the idea that in God we trust? I hope not. I'd rather believe that our government and our society is based upon trust in each other -- democracy instead of theocracy. It's time for those of us who claim to be freethinkers to stop just thinking free and act in freedom as well, while we still can.
One small act of civil disobedience by the 10 to 20 percent of Americans who don't trust in God can undermine the forces of those who seek to impose religious rule: scratch it out. With every bill that comes into our wallets, we can take pen in hand and change our nation's motto from "In God We Trust" to "We Trust". If just one in ten Americans remakes the motto on all the bills that pass through their hands, within a year the message will be loud and clear: we do not trust in God to make our economy work. We trust in each other. We trust in democracy. We trust in the freedom to believe as we choose for ourselves. We trust in the freedom to disbelieve ideas that seem to us to be wrong. We trust in the ability of individual Americans to speak for themselves when it comes to what they choose trust or distrust.
Some say that defacing currency in such a manner is illegal. Well, let them arrest you. Let them argue that you have no choice but to distribute religious propaganda in order to survive. Let them try to convict you for not trusting in God. Take it to court, to the Supreme Court if you have to, and then we'll see how much longer our government can speak for us with the words "In God We Trust".
Don't let us do all the talking. Talk back!
Got irregular thoughts of your own?