‘Substantive and meaningful’:
Congressional Republicans and the
urgent business of promoting religion
By Lamar W. Hankins / The Rag Blog / November 7, 2011
Republican House Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia recently declared that he would work to prevent votes on any new legislation that is not “substantive and meaningful.” To show how serious the Republicans are about addressing only serious public business, on November 1, 2011, the Republican-controlled House of Representatives approved a resolution offered by a Republican congressman, J. Randy Forbes, that reaffirmed “In God We Trust” as the official motto of the United States.
The resolution also supported and encouraged “the public display of the national motto in all public buildings, public schools, and other government institutions.”
No one involved has explained why this reaffirmation of the motto adopted in 1956 and reiterated by a Republican-controlled Congress in 2006, has become a “substantive and meaningful” exercise of the legislative authority of the House.
I thought the U.S. was in the midst of the worst economic catastrophe since the Great Depression. I thought we were still fighting wars in the Middle East. I thought we were having currency issues with China that neede remedying. I thought we were engaging in internet espionage with Israel to interrupt the internet capability in Iran. I thought thousands of Americans were protesting in the streets against the rigged economic system.
I thought we had 9% unemployment officially, and real unemployment in excess of 15%. I thought we had a prolonged drought in Texas that has created great hardship and challenges to the well-being of our people. I thought we were expecting a new round of housing foreclosures against millions of American families.
These and many other problems are, to most of us, “substantive and meaningful,” but the Republicans seem to believe that making this nation’s government side with religion, and one religion in particular, is much more substantive and meaningful than all the economic, social, and environmental problems that are actually in the news and affecting the lives of most Americans daily.
Of course, this posture is in keeping with the theocratic positions of several Republican candidates for the presidency, so it is important for Americans to understand what this issue is about.
In 1782, upon the recommendation of a committee that included Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson, Congress adopted an official seal of the U.S., which included the motto “E Pluribus Unum.” That phrase is usually translated as “from many, one,” or “out of many, one,” indicating that out of many states (or colonies) one nation was created. Some prefer to interpret it to mean that from many people of all backgrounds, ethnicities, races, religions, etc., one nation came into being.
“E Pluribus Unum” became the de facto motto of the U.S. until 1956, around the time when rabid anti-communism enveloped the country. It was the period when “In God We Trust” was placed on more American currency and coins than had been done previously, and it was a period when America’s leaders (and most of her people) seemed to be without irony.
The Almighty might view the placement of a reverential reference to God on filthy lucre as creating a graven image in violation of the admonition against such conduct found in the Ten Commandments. Yet, this was also the period when the Congress found it necessary to confound school children everywhere by adding the words “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance. I still recall how hard it was to remember to add that phrase when we recited the Pledge each morning at school.
Such religious pronouncements are promoted by people who want to reinforce their claim that the United States is a Christian nation. Early in our history, John Adams and the Congress early disavowed such a notion in the Treaty of Tripoli, which was adopted in 1796:
As the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion — as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion, or tranquility, of Mussulmen — and as the said States never entered into any war or act of hostility against any Mahometan nation, it is declared by the parties that no pretext arising from religious opinions shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries.
The words “Mussulmen” and “Mohometan” refer to those who follow Islam or to the Muslim religion. For those who are irony-challenged, I would suggest that the widespread animosity felt by Americans against Muslims, particularly after 9/11, may seem puzzling in light of the Treaty of Tripoli.
The motto “In God We Trust” should present several obvious problems for those of us who live in a nation made up of Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Bahais, Taoists, Wiccans, Hindus, and members of other religious traditions, as well as the over 16% of citizens who profess no religious affiliation.
The term “God” usually refers to the Judeo-Christian god and arguably to Allah, though I have never heard a Muslim refer to Allah by the name “God.” Some other religions don’t believe in any god. By using the name “God,” we exclude all of these others, which seems unAmerican. And for all I know, we have citizens in the U.S. who still believe in Zeus, or Zoriaster, or Krishna, or Thor, or Mithra, or any of the thousands of other gods that have been worshipped through the millennia.
If we have to have a religious motto, shouldn’t it be something like “In a diety we trust?” Yet that would leave out those Americans who don’t trust in any diety.
In pushing his legislation, Forbes claimed that there has been “a disturbing trend of inaccuracies and omissions, misunderstandings of church and state, rogue court challenges, and efforts to remove God from the public domain by unelected bureaucrats.”
Exactly how his resolution fixes any of these alleged problems is not apparent. Undoubtedly, the Republicans are trying to curry favor with the fundamentalist evangelicals who promote a false history of the U.S.
Former evangelist and author Frank Schaeffer, the son of the renowned evangelist Francis Schaeffer, wrote last month,
Like most evangelical/Roman Catholic fundamentalist movements in history, from the Bay State colonies to the Spanish Inquisition, the American Religious Right of today advocates the fusion of state power and religion through the reestablishment of the “Christian America” idea of “American Exceptionalism” (i.e., a nation “chosen” by God), the form of government adopted by the Puritans’ successors during the age of early American colonialism.
Forbes and most congressional Republicans will do almost anything to fuse government and fundamentalist religion, even if it means ignoring the substantive problems faced by most Americans, including most members of the religious right.
Forbes and others like him believe it is their business as government officials to compel me and all other Americans “to firmly declare our trust in God, believing that it will sustain us for generations to come.”
Nothing could be farther from the meaning and actual words of the religion clauses of the First Amendment: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; . . .” No public official has the right to tell anyone how or when to practice his or her religion.
Such actions of Congress to privilege some religious beliefs turns all Americans who are not Christian or Jewish into political outsiders. They encourage government at every level to indoctrinate our children into a particular religious view regardless of their families’ beliefs. It is government promotion of religion and is forbidden by the Constitution.
A few representatives recognized this and voted against Forbes’s resolution:
Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-N.Y.)
Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.)
Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich.)
Rep. Judy Chu (D-Calif.)
Rep. Mike Honda (D-Calif.)
Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Ga.)
Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.)
Rep. Pete Stark (D-Calif.)
Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.)
Two others voted “present.” They were Rep Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) and Rep. Melvin Watt (D-N.C.).
It should never be the purpose of government to sow religious division among Americans, but that’s just what this resolution does. It is time for all Americans, religious and non-religious, to tell their public officials to stop using religion to appeal to some of their constituents to the exclusion of the rest.
It is time to tell public officials to stop creating religious divisions in our country and acknowledge the clear intent of the the Constitution’s language that one of its authors, Thomas Jefferson, believed created a wall of separation between government and religion. Such a wall takes away nothing from the religious among us, all of whom are free to engage in their religion wherever and however they like, with an important exception: they should not expect the government’s approval or disapproval of their religion.
They should not expect the government to promote their religious beliefs, which is exactly what the Forbes House resolution does.
[Lamar W. Hankins, a former San Marcos, Texas, city attorney, is also a columnist for the San Marcos Mercury. This article © Freethought San Marcos, Lamar W. Hankins. Read more articles by Lamar W. Hankins on The Rag Blog.]