Virginia Republican Randy Forbes introduced House Resolution 13 in January, and today it made its way to the House floor. And thank goodness. There has never been a more important time to devote government resources to a four-word platitude.
Hopefully Representative Forbes will mobilize Congress around this resolution, which asks that this auspicious body lend its power to make the saying official, again, and spur us all to a greater level of industriousness for inscribing it on fancy plaques everywhere.
H Res. 13 reads: “Reaffirming ‘In God We Trust’ as the official motto of the United States and supporting and encouraging the public display of the national motto in all public buildings, public schools, and other government institutions.”
Forbes shouldn't have any trouble getting this passed. It’s a model of passionate proofs and dignified decrees. There’s the part that quotes President Ford quoting President Eisenhower saying that we wouldn't have this American government or way of life without God. And the one that explains that the motto ought to be displayed in Congressional Chambers because it is displayed in Congressional Chambers. And the one that points out that the motto can be found in the national anthem.
Who knew that last one? Well, I tracked down the complete lyrics, and there it is, in the 4th verse. To get there you have to go past the interesting 3rd verse, sort of like how you have to wade through all the unsavory stuff in Leviticus to get to the anti-gay stuff. Francis Scott Key was no doubt having a moment the night he wrote the Star Spangled Banner, so he can be forgiven for relishing the gory details of the fate of the British, penning, "their blood has washed out their foul footsteps' pollution," and gloating about their terror and "the gloom of the grave" they faced. But hey, it's poetry, written in a time of war. I find singing the national anthem bracing and inspiring, a valuable ceremonial ritual. But as far as digging up its forgotten verses to justify an ill-conceived resolution, Forbes should have left well enough alone.
Anyway, our folks in the House of the 112th Congress are going to get the whole motto thing squared away for us today.
Does it sound like I'm not taking this seriously? Well, I wasn't. I wasn't thinking about it. Were you? One of my driving forces is raising awareness about the critical balance of religious protections embodied in the first amendment. But unlike some of my friends on the left, I’ve not been focused on the wording of the pledge or on our currency. My take has been like that of the Supreme Court. When the issue came before them in 1970, they sided with those who wanted to keep "In God We Trust" as our motto, basically saying, "oh don't worry about it, it's not all that religious, it's more ceremonial and patriotic.”
I have great respect for many devoutly religious leaders who have worked in the public sphere. (Not usually the conservative ones, but I’m sure that’s just a coincidence.) But I also have great respect for certain notable atheists. And I’m worried about the hostile climate for Muslim-Americans, and haven’t noticed the Jewish Anti-defamation League being ready to close up shop.
Still, parsing the official catch-phrase of the country hasn't been at the top of my list. But if Representative Forbes wants to get this party started, we can.
His website says that this double extra assurance for an already-official motto is needed because there are people trying to "reverse decades of long-standing tradition." Decades? That’s not tradition. The First Amendment was ratified in 1791. References to God were woven into the fabric of public life by rewording the Pledge of Allegiance and adding wording to our paper money in the 50’s, when terror of godless Communism was rampant. They are cultural remnants of the early years of the Cold War, certainly not inherent aspects of our democracy, which was explicitly founded on principles antithetical to such wording. Joseph McCarthy is gone. He lost his fight. And while the fear that he left in his wake prompted the country to write God into some ceremonial aspects of public life, the practice can’t be defended as the basis for all we hold dear.
But that’s exactly what Forbes posits in his bill. One clause tells us that “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." Actually, no one is suggesting taking anything out of “the marketplace of ideas.” My own philosophy is that Forbes is conflating religion and morality here. If only religion was a predictor of morality. I see morality as something some people base on their religion, and some people base on other guiding principles. It’s morality that we all – regardless of belief system – would want our leaders to have. But this theorizing - in the marketplace of ideas - is something everyone is free to do, and is not threatened by the status of a motto.
There is nothing untoward about elected officials putting their faith on display. The Establishment clause does not preclude that; in fact it protects it. Religious faith is part of who many Americans are, and it’s up to their constituents to form individual opinions about how that plays out in the official’s performance. Founding Father James Madison said that religious devotion in this country was "manifestly increased by the total separation of the church from the state." I myself am often stirred by images of Presidents and Senators in the past and present, at pivotal times in the life of our country, with their heads bowed or walking with their families up the steps of a church. The truly devout, whether they are followers of the Pentecostal Holiness Church or Secular Humanists, share an interest in preserving religious freedom in this country. This is a shared concern, equally important to religious people and those who are not. We all benefit from what was presciently set forth by the Framers of the Constitution; that we must commit to simultaneously protecting freedom of expression of religion, and freedom of imposition of it by the state.
It is incumbent on Representative Forbes to use his office to preserve separation of church and state. He should take great comfort in the fact that with a few simple words, the Founders threaded a needle that safeguards his right to serve openly as a Christian. To never have to live in fear of reprisal for practicing his faith while serving in Congress. Can Representative Forbes not imagine a time or circumstance in which members of a belief system other than his own might gain enough influence to encroach on his ideology?
"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof."
I don’t think the motto issue is urgent. It’s the last thing I think Congress should be spending time on right now. But it does raise the larger issue, and if you insist, Representative Forbes, we can make sure that issue gets clarified now. Be careful what you wish for.