Our Humanity, Naturally

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Proof that religious wording isn't "secular" or "benign"

Public religiosity rarely brings a pluralistic society together

When nonreligious Americans object to the words "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance to the Flag, or to "In God We Trust" as the national motto, we often hear opponents claim that the wording is harmless, secular in purpose, and that nobody interprets the words as being a religious affirmation of any kind. Sometimes the excuse given is that such wording merely "acknowledges the nation's religious heritage."

Of course, just about every society has some kind of religious heritage, but even if we find it desirable to "acknowledge" America's religious heritage one could question why we must do so by affirmatively stating that God actually exists. After all, America also has a strong secular heritage - many of our founders were quite anti-clerical, some rejected Christianity and supernatural religion outright, and certainly many of them were far outside the framework of traditional religion. Thus, would we "acknowledge" that secular heritage by affirming in our national Pledge and motto that there is no God?

Of course not.  And that's why the claim - that we shouldn't take the God-wording literally but should instead understand it as an "acknowledgement of our religious heritage" - seems so disingenuous. (Funny that the "religious heritage" claim is almost always made by those who, just coincidentally, seem to sympathize with the literal affirmation that is being made - that we are "under God" and that we do trust in God.)

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But if we needed even more evidence that the "under God" wording is not benign, that those who recite those words take them literally and seriously, we can turn to an interview with a young humanist activist from Rhode Island named Jessica Ahlquist. A 15-year-old sophomore, Jessica had the audacity to take the First Amendment seriously, and therefore she asked for the removal of a mural emblazoned with an "official school prayer" (called "Our Heavenly Father") from her public school. When school officials refused, she decided to give them a civics lesson. She filed a lawsuit.  See the interview here.

As the interview shows, things got a bit ugly after Jessica's objections became public. Most telling for our purposes is the response of a particular classmate who opposed Jessica's actions. As her class was reciting the Pledge one morning, the classmate turned away from the flag to face Jessica, then at the appropriate time shouted at Jessica: "UNDER GOD!"

Now, I suppose it's possible that this excited student, so emotionally charged in the defense of God that he felt compelled to yell at Jessica, may have realized that the "under God" words have a purely "secular purpose," that to him those words may have been a mere "acknowledgement of the nation's religious heritage." But I doubt it.

It should be no surprise that to most people affirmative statements of religious truth - such as "In God We Trust" and the unambiguous claim that we are a nation "under God - are not secular and are not mere acknowledgements of heritage. They are religious truth claims that make outsiders of all who disagree, that necessarily slant government and public policy away from the outsiders and toward those who promote the affirmations.

Hopefully Jessica, and others of her generation, will help right these wrongs that our older generation has perpetuated.

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Text copyright 2011 Dave Niose

Dave Niose is an attorney, activist, and writer. He is president of the Washington-based American Humanist Association.

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