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Pondering freedom of religion

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Should America put God on money? That question will be debated Thursday, March 27, when the University of Charleston holds a 6:30 p.m. public symposium on the U.S. motto, "In God We Trust."

I'm to be a panelist, along with United Methodist Bishop Sandra Ball, Rabbi Victor Urecki of B'nai Jacob Synagogue, President Dan Anderson of Appalachian Bible College, Imam Ehteshamul Haque of the South Charleston Muslim mosque and Monsignor Edward Sadie of Sacred Heart Co-Cathedral.

Here's an advance comment I wrote for a brochure about the event:

Freedom of religion means that the government can't tell you what to believe. Each person is free to reach an individual conclusion about faith.

America's founders were extremely wise. They saw that mixing religion with the power of government had caused centuries of horror in Europe. Christians and Muslims slaughtered each other in the Crusades. The Holy Inquisition burned thousands of alleged heretics and alleged witches. Catholic and Protestant armies in Reformation wars killed millions. Strong sects persecuted weak ones, massacring Jews, Anabaptists and the like.

So, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, James Madison, George Mason and other founders launched a historic breakthrough, a new advance for civilization: the separation of church and state. Government was forbidden to enforce religion. This safeguard was locked into the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights.

However, some politicians know they can win church votes if they champion government-backed religion. They constantly try to insert church claims into government policy. It happened in the 1950s - at the height of the Cold War against "godless communism" - when Congress adopted "In God We Trust" as America's motto.

This action clearly violated the separation of church and state. But federal courts chose to pretend that the motto isn't religious, and therefore is allowable.

Legal challenges against the motto sometimes overlap with challenges against the phrase "under God," which was added to the Pledge of Allegiance in 1954. One court ruling called these affirmations of faith mere "ceremonial deism" that have "lost through rote repletion any significant religious content." Another declared that the motto "is of patriotic or ceremonial character and bears no true resemblance to a governmental sponsorship of a religious exercise."

But honest people see through this evasion and recognize that the motto is an unconstitutional government endorsement of religion. However, most folks shrug and ignore the violation. They're accustomed to legalistic contradictions. (In West Virginia, for example, laws declare that only "nonintoxicating" beer can be sold.)

I'm a lifelong churchgoer and rarely miss a Sunday. But I attend an off-brand church, Charleston's Unitarian congregation, containing many scientists, professors, social workers and nonconformists. (Sometimes I think I'm the only one there without a Ph.D.) Unitarianism is the least-supernatural faith. One of our ministers used to say: "I know that some of you are offended by the slogan 'In God We Trust' on your money. Here's a chance for you to eliminate part of that problem: We will now collect the morning offering."

Today, mostly Tea Party conservatives try to push the U.S. motto onto Americans. They want every government building and public school classroom to have large signs declaring "In God We Trust." They want government-backed religion. (It reminds me of another example of holy politics: One year, the Legislature's Prayer Breakfast was led by Gov. Arch Moore, Senate President Dan Tonkovich and a fundamentalist congressman from Georgia. They all prayed loudly - and a few years later, all three were in federal prison.)

America is turning relentlessly more secular. Fewer young people hold supernatural beliefs. They trust science instead. I doubt that many of them take the U.S. motto very seriously.

In the end, debate over the motto comes down to this: Do you want the government to tell you what to believe? Do you want the government to dictate religious convictions? Or do you want to decide for yourself?

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On Thursday evening, it will be fascinating to hear five other voices, plus audience members, address this issue at the U.C. symposium. I plan to bring up another topic. West Virginia's Constitution begins like this:

"Since through Divine Providence we enjoy the blessings of civil, political and religious liberty, we, the people of West Virginia, in and through the provisions of this constitution, reaffirm our faith in and constant reliance upon God...."

This religious preamble was proposed by legislators in 1959 and passed by voters, 250,000 to 100,000, in 1960. In this Appalachian state, I'm surprised there were 100,000 opponents.

Just for the record, 1960 is the same year that voters elected Wally Barron, the crookedest governor in state history, who went to prison along with most of his department heads. Both Barron and the holy preamble were on the same ballot.

As far as I can learn, no court challenge has been filed against the preamble. If it ever happens, I wonder if courts will rule that it's merely "ceremonial deism" and not actually religious.

Incidentally, a famous West Virginia case guaranteed that government cannot tell you what to believe. During the patriotic fervor of World War II, some Jehovah's Witness children in Charleston refused to salute the flag at school or recite the Pledge of Allegiance. They were expelled, and their parents were threatened with prosecution. Around the state, other Jehovah's Witnesses were publicly brutalized or humiliated.

Fiery Charleston lawyer Horace Meldahl and the American Civil Liberties Union fought a court battle all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled in 1943 that the power of government cannot force Americans to swear beliefs they don't really hold. The justices declared that personal beliefs are "beyond the reach of majorities and officials." The decision added:

"If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion...."

But when the government puts God on money, isn't it is prescribing what shall be orthodox for 320 million Americans?

Haught, the Gazette's editor, can be reached by phone at 304-348-5199304-348-5199 or e-mail at haught@wvgazette.com.


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