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It's Time to Abandon 'In God We Trust'
A bill in Tennessee mandating "In God We Trust" be prominently placed in public schools is making its way onto the desk of Gov. Bill Haslem. He is expected to sign it and do his part to butcher the trust of irreligious Tennesseeans.
In 1956, while the thought of "godless Communists" had turned the United States government into a hysterical assembly bent on rooting out nonconformist thinkers and persecuting Hollywood screenwriters, members of the 84th United States Congress passed H.J. Resolution 396, establishing, for the first time, an official national motto — "In God We Trust" — and replacing the de facto motto, "E Pluribus Unum." Since then, the phrase has appeared in numerous places throughout American culture, enforcing, whether deliberate or imprudent, the idea that the United States is a sanctuary under divine protection and that its existence is married to religiosity and the importance of a life with God.
Over the past couple of weeks in Tennessee, the Volunteer State's legislature has reinforced that notion, without controversy, passing a bill mandating all public schools in the state display the motto in a "prominent location," which can include cafeterias, major hallways, or even the front of the building. The Senate passed it unanimously. The House passed it with eight dissenting votes and two abstentions. Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslem is likely to sign it into law. After all, according to state Rep. Susan Lynn:
"Our national motto is on our money. It's on our license plates. It's part of our national anthem. Our national motto and founding documents are the cornerstones of freedom and we should teach these children about these things."
Though, "In God We Trust" wasn't the American national motto until 180 years in.
Some would consider this a win for American religiosity, an important accomplishment in the wake of Obergefell and the cultural and economic backlash over various "bathroom bills," but others view it as just another move by a Christofascist governmental body to impose religious beliefs on irreligious people. One thing that is certain, however, is that legislation like this, which paints a religious endorsement on a government institution, openly violates the First Amendment's separation of church and state.
In an 1802 letter to the Danbury Baptist Association of Connecticut, then-President Thomas Jefferson wrote of the Establishment and Free Exercise clauses in the First Amendment:
"I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should 'make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,' thus building a wall of separation between Church & State."
"In God We Trust" is an endorsement of religion. Neither the state or federal government should endorse religion, especially as the number of irreligious in the United States continues to grow.
And it is in this that the real damage is being done by this legislation, and others like it in several other states. A phrase like "In God We Trust" corrodes the trust between the irreligious and the governments who are tasked with overseeing them, protecting them, and keeping their interests in mind. To paraphrase a sentiment expressed by another student in one of my ethics classes: "It's bad enough that I endorse God when I buy smokes."
Tennessee may be adding the words "In God We Trust" to their state license plates this summer.