When people ask me, “why are you so against ‘In God We Trust’ on our money and ‘under God’ in the pledge,” I usually tell them that it’s because these things violate our 1st Amendment to the Constitution. But there is more to it than just that. It is because such things like these –these little encroachments upon the 1st Amendment– give many the opinion, like that mentioned in an October 4th, 2012, Washington Post article, that if you don’t believe in “God” then you aren’t really an American, or that you are less than a full citizen of this country, or that you can’t be a patriot who loves America.1
Sally Quinn is not alone in this belief. George H. W. Bush has been quoted saying much the same thing.
Rob Sherman, a reporter for American Atheists, once asked Mr. Bush in an interview back in 1987, “What are you going to do to win the votes of Americans who are atheists?”2
Mr. Bush replied, “I guess I’m pretty weak in the atheist community. Faith in God is important to me.”
Sherman followed up: “Do you support the equal citizenship and patriotism of Americans who are atheists?”
Mr. Bush replied, “I don’t know that atheists should be regarded as citizens, nor should they be regarded as patriotic. This is one nation under God.”
I imagine some of you might agree with Ms Quinn and Mr Bush. And I’m sorry you feel that way. But I was born in the United States, and that one fact alone is the only fact that makes any of us citizens of this country, per the 14th Amendment. And no other part of the constitution denies me or anyone else citizenship for a lack of faith.
How about my patriotism? Does my lack of faith undo my 30 years of service to this country in the Armed Forces? Does it take away my honors and medals? Does it mop away the blood I spilled in Iraq for the American cause? Does it make my scars disappear?
For 180 years the de facto motto of our nation was “E PLURIBUS UNUM” –“From Many, One.”3 But in 1956, when America was made afraid of the Communist boogeyman by people like then Senator Joseph McCarthy (WI), Congress decided that that motto should reflect the belief that “in God we trust,” as a counter to the atheism of the Communist regime in the USSR.
That same congress also decided two years earlier to rewrite the flag pledge, originally composed by Francis Bellamy in 1892 and formally adopted by Congress as the pledge in 1942, to read, “…one nation, under God….”
True, these things are small inconveniences to our rights. But they are tiny seeds of much larger inconveniences. Inconveniences that would make people of faith think, somehow, that my (or any other atheist’s) citizenship and love of country is somehow less than their own just because I (we) don’t believe in leprechauns, faeries, and gods; that my (our) morals are somehow less than theirs because mine (ours) conform to public laws, and not those found in a book of desert mythology. The reason I refer to these encroachments as “small inconveniences” or “issues” is because I am rarely called upon to say the pledge and my money has the same spending power for me regardless what motto graces its face. These are, after all, just words, and words, unlike sticks and stones, won’t break my back, as the childhood cliché goes. It’s the actions they inspire in others, the intolerance and prejudice they invoke, that does the real harm.
So, how does the motto “In God We Trust” and the inclusion of “one nation, under God” violate the first Amendment? Because it “favors,” not just “an establishment of religion;” it favors all those establishments of religion that believe in the existence of Gods at the exclusion of those that do not. Atheism and Buddhism do NOT adhere to such a belief. Many Americans are atheists or Buddhists. They are excluded by the pledge of allegiance and scorned by the national motto. These are small issues, but they bolster bigger issues of exclusion and intolerance.
It has been argued that removing these things would be an insult to the faithful. But I would put it to them that a pledge of allegiance that reads “one nation, indivisible” is far less an insult to a theist’s faith than a pledge that reads, “One nation, NOT under God.” Why should I, or anyone who doesn’t believe in gods, have to pledge my allegiance to a God to feel a part of that nation I was born to? Why does the money in my wallet have to insult my beliefs when I look at it?
I’m a secularist. I will defend the right of those of faith to worship whatever version of the Divine they choose; even if their God is Mickey Mouse. It matters not how I feel about their faith. It only matters that I recognize their right to believe it. But I have watched for a long time as the Religious Right has tried little bit by little bit to whittle away at the 1st Amendment. I have watched as they have tried to erase the basis of our Nation’s secular heritage; rewriting our nation’s secular history, putting Christian beliefs into the mouths of our most outspoken founders who were themselves unbelievers of the Christian faith. I get angry about it, but it seems that my past silence about it has only allowed it to grow, and to imbue a Christian complexion upon our national skin. Consider this my first in a long series of loud shouts.