Pursuant to my earlier entry, there are some additional minor points and clarifications which need to be made, but which I felt would have cluttered the line of argument. As the guys at the Two Percent Company have noted on several occasions (particularly this one), there are numerous smaller trappings of (Judeo-)Christian religion littering the American political landscape, to which adherents of the "America is a Christian nation" meme will point to support their claim; taken individually, these elements are not especially significant, but collectively, they do add up to the point that the assertion starts to sound almost plausible, provided you don't think it through too hard.
The most obvious, perhaps, is the phrase, "In God We Trust." It appears on the currency, it's the national motto, surely damning evidence! Well, hardly.
The phrase first crops up, in the slightly variant form "In God is our trust," in the final stanza of the poem "The Defense of Fort McHenry," written by Francis Scott Key in 1814 after witnessing the assault on the fort (near Baltimore, MD) by a British expeditionary force in September of that year. Under the title "The Star-Spangled Banner," the poem was adopted as the national anthem—though not until 1931. The phrase's next appearance is when it starts to be placed on United States coinage during the Civil War, largely as a result of increased religious sentiment. It is not until 1938, however, that it appears on all newly minted coins. In 1956, Congress votes to adopt the phrase as the national motto, and it starts to be placed on paper money as well.
Constitutionality aside, here's the problem I have with "In God We Trust": going by historical context, it's a cry of desperation. The British expeditionary force which assaulted Fort McHenry had just returned from laying waste to Washington, DC itself. The pleas urging Salmon P. Chase, Lincoln's Secretary of the Treasury, to include God on the coinage came prior to 1864, when Grant and (especially) Sherman's offensives into Confederate territory made it clear that a Union victory was a matter of "when," rather than "if." The phrase's adoption as the national motto came a year after the formation of the Warsaw Pact, at a time when American victory in the event of an armed confrontation with the Soviet Union was considered by no means certain. In short, it's a phrase which has gained currency—sometimes literally—when Americans have had reason to fear for the continued existence of their lives, livelihood, and country. Given historical context, it may as well be read as "Save me, Jebus!" or, even less dignified (but no less to the point), "Mommy!"
It's also dreadfully unoriginal. The motto "Dieu et mon droit" (French, "God and my right") has been part of the coat of arms of (successively) England, Great Britain and the United Kingdom since medieval times. The Republic of the United Netherlands stamped "Si Deus nobiscum quis contra nos?" (Latin, "If God be with us, who shall stand against us?" see Rom 8:31) on its coinage, and the Kingdom of the Netherlands subsequently used an abbreviated version in Dutch—"God zij met ons" (Dutch, "God be with us")—on the edge of its larger coins from 1816 to this day (it still appears on 2 euro coins minted in the Netherlands). "Gott mit uns" (German, "God [be] with us") was the motto of the kings of Prussia, and appeared on Prussian and, later, German army belt buckles until 1945. Any country with a largely monotheistic population can adopt a national motto containing a reference to God; the great thing about the original (and, in my opinion, rightful) motto of the United States—"E pluribus unum" (Latin, "Out of many, one")—was that it captured what was unique about the United States at the time of its founding. "In God We Trust" might as well be the national motto of Iran. In fact, the national motto of Iran appears to be (for all practical purposes) "Allahu akbar" (Arabic, "God is [the] great[est]"), which, when you get right down to it, boils down to the same thing.
But the overriding argument against this phrase, as against the phrase "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance, is that it is blatantly unconstitutional. Yes, yes, I'm familiar with the argument that "God" is not specific to any one religion and therefore supposedly does not violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. This is mere sophistry, as the First Amendment does not speak of "an establishment of any one religion" or "a particular religion," but of "an establishment of religion." If anyone can explain to me in a convincing manner how references to a god are not a matter of religion (not "a religion," just "religion"), I'd love to hear it.
Another argument I've heard can be paraphrased as follows: "If it really is unconstitutional, as you claim, why has it stood for almost fifty years? Why didn't the Supreme Court overturn it when it was introduced?" Simple: because that's not how the American legal system works. For all the widespread (ab)use of the term "activist judges," no court in the United States can rule on a particular legal matter unless a case is brought before it which pertains to that matter. In other words, the necessary precondition to an "activist judge" is an "activist plaintiff" (which is arguably a pleonasm); there could have been no Roe v Wade ruling without "Jane Roe" filing suit against the state of Texas. Challenging the constitutionality of a law is no trivial matter; it requires time, money, legal standing, and acceptance of the fact that you will incur the hatred of a lot of people. When one looks at the sheer amount of vitriol directed, sometimes almost casually, at Madalyn Murray O'Hair and Michael Newdow, it's clear that challenging popular (but no less unconstitutional for that) official endorsements of religion is not an exercise for the faint of heart.
Another thing religious conservatives like to point to is the purported fact that elected officials are required to swear an oath of office, concluding with "...so help me God." However, when one reads the Constitution (a novel concept for many religous conservatives, I know), one sees that the word "oath" is invariably followed by the words "or affirmation" (and also that there is no mention of the phrase "so help me God"). The same applies to witnesses in trials; the U.S. Code, and various state laws (say, the Revised Code of Washington) state that an affirmation is, for legal purposes, equivalent to an oath.
The crucial thing to understand is that the only thing that matters from the state's perspective is that the person in question utter the most solemn promise he or she can muster. That many of a theistic persuasion evidently feel they cannot trust themselves to keep their word without the aid of and/or threat of punishment by the deity of their choice (and, judging by some of the testimony given in Kitzmiller v Dover, even that is no guarantee) in no way reflects on the state's requirements; the state does not—indeed, can not—consider an oath to convey a greater degree of reliability from the person uttering it than does an affirmation, and vice-versa. Thus, both the decision to swear an oath (rather than express an affirmation) is a choice one makes, and the action of doing so is performed, as a private individual. This should seem self-evident; the president-elect doesn't become president until he has been sworn in, so technically, no president of the United States has ever taken an oath of office in his capacity as president.
Let me state at this point that I am a rampant atheist, and a fervent supporter of the separation of church and state. But I am also a proponent of individual liberties, including freedom of religion, and therefore have no objection to elected officials calling upon whichever supernatural entity they believe in (be it God, the spirits of their ancestors, the Force, you name it) to support them in carrying out their duties*. Furthermore, I think that any reasonable person who holds the same beliefs as I feels the same way.
That is why I choked on certain parts of a speech given by Senator Barack Obama (D-Illinois) last June regarding the interaction of religion and politics. Specifically, I took umbrage at the following paragraph, in particular the first and last sentences:
But what I am suggesting is this - secularists are wrong when they ask believers to leave their religion at the door before entering into the public square. Frederick Douglas, Abraham Lincoln, Williams Jennings Bryant, Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King - indeed, the majority of great reformers in American history - were not only motivated by faith, but repeatedly used religious language to argue for their cause. So to say that men and women should not inject their "personal morality" into public policy debates is a practical absurdity. Our law is by definition a codification of morality, much of it grounded in the Judeo-Christian tradition.
As I argued in my earlier post, American law is not in any meaningful sense "grounded in the Judeo-Christian tradition" but, rather, in Germanic tribal custom and the legal code of the Roman republic (both of which predate the spread of Judaism and Christianity beyond the Levant), and the supreme law of the land repudiates numerous elements of that same "Judeo-Christian tradition." Then there is the characterization of what "secularists" (are wrong to) demand of "believers." Earlier in his speech, Obama speaks of how "Democrats, for the most part, have taken the bait" when conservatives characterize progressives as being overtly hostile to religion. Incredibly, he completely misses the fact that by unquestioningly parroting the conservatives' rhetoric as if it were an accurate portrayal of the situation, he has himself not merely taken their bait and swallowed it hook, line, and sinker, but is actively squirming to impale himself on the fishing rod.
The word "secularist" alone smacks of pejorative labelling, just a short step away from "atheist" and "socialist," both of which practically put you in bed with Stalin, or so the religious conservatives would have you believe. I can only assume that what is meant by the term is "proponent of the separation of church and state," though the way Obama uses it, it also seems to mean "non-religious person," as if the two were interchangeable. That is a mischaracterization conceived and propagated by the religious right, as is the notion that "secularists" are asking—nay, demanding—that "believers [...] leave their religion at the door." At the risk of sounding like a conspiracy theorist, the obvious reason for disseminating these misrepresentations is to drive a wedge into the social liberal camp, splitting the religious from the non-religious so that, deprived of each other's support, they can be defeated piecemeal by marginalizing the non-religious, and browbeating the religious into submission. Divida et impera. And judging by Senator Obama's words, this tactic is having the desired effect. He has bought into the notion that "there are some liberals who dismiss religion in the public square as inherently irrational or intolerant, insisting on a caricature of religious Americans that paints them as fanatical," and he admits to being troubled by the claim made by Alan Keyes, his erstwhile opponent, that "Jesus Christ would not vote for Barack Obama," implying that Obama is not a "proper" Christian.
Isn't it remarkably convenient how, for religious conservatives, people like Barack Obama do count as Christians for the purposes of claiming that "America is a Christian nation," but as soon as they fail to toe the party line, they cease to be true
Scotsmen Christians? Mr. Keyes, being a Roman Catholic, could do worse than to realize that many of his fellow self-described "true Christians" feel the same way about him. Another thing that's remarkably convenient is how, when large numbers of the innocent are killed and made homeless by natural disasters, or small children are afflicted with gruesome and terminal diseases, "the Lord works in mysterious ways," but when it comes to His hypothetical voting preferences (I think I can confidently state that Yeshua bar Yahosef bar Yaqub that is called the Christ is not legally registered to vote in the state of Illinois, or indeed any other state), His precise intent can be divined accurately and effortlessly. The fact of the matter is that religious beliefs all too frequently do manifest in ways which are irrational and intolerant, even if we accept that these are not traits which are inherent to religion in general.
Still, Senator Obama acknowledges there is a gap to be bridged, and munificently proposes that believers take the first step towards compromise, namely by urging "that the religiously motivated translate their concerns into universal, rather than religion-specific, values," and "that their proposals be subject to argument, and amenable to reason." I will not dispute that these are eminently reasonable suggestions, but they do not actually serve any compromise, for two reasons.
As I said earlier, the notion that "secularists [...] ask believers to leave their religion at the door before entering into the public square" is a gross misrepresentation. An overwhelming majority of "secularists" are accepting of—or, at worst, resigned to—the fact that many people rely on their religious beliefs to provide them with a foundation upon which to build their system of values, or a more salonfähige** justification for values (for want of a better word) they hold for other, less palatable reasons. What secularists will not accept is the adoption of any public policy on the basis of "religion-specific values" alone. In other words, they have long held the position which Obama considers to be a "compromise." That having been said, the distinction I made earlier with regards to oaths of office, namely between a believer expressing his religious beliefs in the public square as a private citizen, or in his capacity as a government official; the former should be accepted, the latter should not.
But even if "secularists" and people like Obama can find common ground—and I'd like to think that is quite possible—it all matters little if more hard-line religious conservatives are unwilling to go along with the reconciliation, and there is absolutely no reason to believe that such a rapprochement is in the works. Regular conservatives and neo-conservatives alike claim their moral values are "absolute"; thus, they make it clear from the outset that none of "their proposals be subject to argument, and amenable to reason." After all, you can't reason, let alone compromise, about "moral absolutes," so anyone who disagrees with you is ipso facto morally deficient (which is why "Jesus Christ would not vote for Barack Obama"). If non-believers and other "secularists" seem unreasonable at times when engaging religious conservatives, it because the latter have already made it abundantly clear they will not be reasoned with, and the former have become fed up with trying. To counter the claims of "absolute" values based upon a particular interpretation of the bible, secularist groups like the ACLU and AU present their reading of the Constitution as absolute. In doing so, the secularists' position is significantly stronger.
First, unlike the Bible, the Constitution was originally written in English, and even though that leaves plenty of room for argument over interpretation, at least everybody's working with the exact same text. By contrast, Biblegateway.com lists twenty different versions of the Bible in English alone, not all of which say the same thing. For example, while Leviticus 20:27 clearly calls for the immediate execution of, among others, Allison Dubois, Sylvia Browne, John Edward and James Van Praagh in the New International Version, the same verse in the King James Version leaves a bit more wiggle room. Not all that absolute, then.
Second, the secularists are consistent; the ACLU is as zealous about taking the government to court over "prohibiting the free exercise" of religion as it is over anything which smacks even slightly of governmental "establishment of religion." By contrast, opponents of same-sex marriage ultimately rely on Lev 20:13 to justify their homophobia, blithely ignoring the many references in that very same chapter which indicate that, according to the Torah, marriage does not equal "one man, one woman," but instead "one man, one or more women," thus demonstrating that the concept is by no means immutable. Similarly, many of these same people have no problem eating pork (prohibited by Lev 11:7) or shrimp (Lev 11:10), or getting a haircut and a shave (Lev 19:27).
The secularists' advantage in adhering to the Constitution, rather than the Bible (or, for that matter, the Koran, the Book of Mormon, or any other piece of scripture), as the basis for formulating public policy in America most readily explains the insistent adherence to the fiction that America is a "Christian nation": because the majority of Americans are Christian (even when they're not "true Christians"), the Constitution is less important than "(Judeo-)Christian values." This is nothing less than a tacit admission on the part of religious conservatives that, constitutionally, they don't have leg to stand on. If only the Obamas of this world would understand and accept that.
* - Provided, that is, that two things are understood: first, that the invocation of the supernatural entity in question reflects upon the person holding the office, and not upon the office itself; and second, that the invocation is ancillary to the content of the oath itself. By the latter, I mean that the fact that a person elected to Congress has invoked God is considerably less important than the fact that he has sworn to support the Constitution.
** - Salonfähig: a German term which is perhaps best translated, albeit somewhat freely, as "acceptable in polite, cultured circles." It can be applied to modes of dress, behavior and language, and in the latter case often refers to euphemisms. The term Antisemitismus ("anti-Semitism"), for example, was coined to be more salonfähig than the more direct Judenhass ("hatred of Jews"). Similarly, "family values" is more salonfähig than "bigotry."