I suppose I should start by saying that I absolutely feel that both are completely unconstitutional and that I’m completely amazed that they snuck by in the first place. But now that it’s there, one of the first questions I suppose is important is whether or not it matters. Obviously, many people, including many atheists, feel it isn’t a problem. “If you don’t like it, you don’t have to say it,” they point out. “So what if it offends you. There’s no constitutional protections against being offended and it’s not like it hurts anyone.”
I think it should be obvious that I feel it does hurt people. How so? Allowing the government to endorse these phrases perpetuates the myth that this government is Christian and that non-Christians, or even the wrong kind of Christians, are second-class citizens. America is supposed to be a nation in which all people are inherently equal and all are welcome, but the sad fact is, that’s far from reality. These phrases send the distinct message that non-Christians aren’t welcome.
Is this just atheists feeling victimized though? Are we the only ones getting this message? Hardly. Let’s take a look at a few examples:
During his talk, Michael Newdow referred to a case of an immigrant who assisted the United States during a time of war, was nearly denied citizenship because he was an atheist. The judge presiding over the case pointed out that this was “one nation under God” and refused him citizenship. The immigrant was later approved on appeal.
Last month in an Alaskan newspaper, a letter to the editor (free registration required) was submitted stating
It's time to stomp out atheists in America. The majority of Americans would love to see atheists kicked out of America. If you don't believe in God, then get out of this country.And what was the rationalization offered for this diatribe?
Our currency even says "In God We Trust." So, to all the atheists in America: Get off of our country.But who really cares what some dingbat in Alaska thinks? It’s not like they will have any effect on public policy.
But the president does. And what does former president George Bush Sr. think?
I don't know that atheists should be considered as citizens, nor should they be considered patriots. This is one nation under God.That’s rather significant. If atheists aren’t citizens, they cannot be afforded the same rights.
These are just a few examples, but you can rest assured that any time you find theists denegrating those of non-Christians faiths in America, the “one nation under God” fallacy isn’t far behind.
So clearly, these phrases are being used as ammunition to target and denigrate non-Christians and atheists in particular. The question then becomes, is that illegal? As far as I’m concerned, when the government is the ones giving people this ammo, absolutely.
One of the tests applied to determine constitutionality of an act of government is the Endorsement Test. This states that an act is unconstitutional if it
sends a message to nonadherents that they are outsiders, not full members of the political community, and an accompanying message to adherents that they are insiders, favored members of the political community.The examples I’ve just provided show pretty clearly that this particular act of government is sending a definite message. The judge in the first example thinks that “one nation under God” means that atheists shouldn’t be allowed into the country. The woman in Alaska thinks it means that atheists should be kicked out. A former president thinks it means that atheists shouldn’t be considered citizens.
So, from where I’m standing it looks very much like the phrases “under God” and “In God We Trust” are sending messages to nonadherents. This is the issue that I take with it.
Many excuses are made to legitimize these infractions, most notably to attempt to make it pass the first prong of the Lemon Test which requires that government acts have a legitimate secular purpose. The frequent claim is that the Founders intended this nation to be rooted in Christianity. I find this about as plausible as the excuses made for the Mt. Soledad cross. It’s simply a rewriting of history to rationalize ones privileged positions.
Debunking this notion was the main thrust of Newdow’s speech two weeks ago. He pointed out many things, many of which I can’t recall at the moment, but it did strike me that the oath of office originally had two references to God. They were all removed. Urban myth held that George Washington, upon taking this oath added “so help me God” to the end, but in reviewing historical documents, Newdow discovered that there is no historical basis for this. The improved addendum did not make its debut until more than half a century after the fact.
Similarly, our constitution was stripped of all religious references. Thus, to imply that our Founders intended a religious government, after removing all references to God in our founding documents, it more than a bit disingenuous, rewriting of history aside.
The true history of both these phrases is a sense of Christian pride that built up in the 1950’s. The insertion of these words was to serve as propaganda and distinguish ourselves from the godless communists. So while there is a historical narrative, I don’t see that perpetuating propaganda is one we should be especially proud of.
This means there’s no legitimate secular purpose. The first prong of the Lemon Test is failed, and the Endorsement Tests shows that it also violates the second and third prongs. So I don’t see why there’s any reason to preserve phrases that have no function except to deride others with an unconstitutionally government endorsed acts.
So that’s where I stand. And from what I learned of Newdow, that’s where he stands too. We both want these acts removed because they’re illegal and harmful. It’s not because, as many theists assume, we’re “angry atheists”. In fact, Newdow is amazingly collected about it. During his presentation and even at the gathering afterwards, Newdow never expressed anger about the case.
However, those of us present at the gathering later did get to see him quite livid about an entirely different topic. The topic that really got him going was the issue of losing custody of his daughter. Although he couldn’t prove it, he strongly suspected that the judge denied him custody primarily due to his atheism as has frequently occurred.
The reason I bring this up isn’t to show that Newdow wants to feel victimized, but rather that he too is human. He gets upset over things that anyone should get upset about. If you prick him, he will bleed. Even if he, and I, are atheists.
And whether or not Bush Sr., Ms. Shannon from Alaska, or anyone else likes it, we’re also citizens; We’re patriots; And we deserve the same rights and respects from a government that’s neutral to religion.
Side Note: ID proponents also uses the “under God” fallacy as part of their Wedge Strategy by trying to force citizens to choose whether they’re “under God” or “Under Darwin”