In the national spotlight Thursday night introducing Mitt Romney as the GOP nominee for president, Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) showed all of America why the country’s national motto – In God We Trust – must be abandoned. Exhibiting stunning insensitivity to the millions of Americans who do not profess a belief in any deities, Rubio declared:
“Our national motto is In God we Trust, reminding us that faith in our Creator is the most important American value of all.”
Thus, Rubio was brazenly shouting out what many proponents of the religious motto have pubicly denied: the religious wording of the motto validates the idea that only believers are first-class citizens. Nonbelievers, while tolerated by the true believers (sometimes begrudgingly), clearly hold a second-class status.
Defenders of the national motto have often disingenuously claimed that the affirmation is not at all religious, but instead should be understood as a benign acknowledgment of the nation’s religious heritage. Many nonbelievers have found it rather odd that the nation must make a factual affirmation of a belief in a divinity in order to “acknowledge heritage,” but most have quietly gone along with it. We know that the "religious heritage" claim is a sham, that many religious proponents of the motto support it because it implies that their religious views are patriotic. But we also have assumed that most rational people - theistic and nontheistic - nevertheless realize that nonbelievers are indeed an important (and equal) part of the nation’s demographic tapestry.
Rubio shows us, however, that such assumptions are wrong. He shows us that even educated, high-ranking leaders - never mind the average guy down the street - can see the In God We Trust motto as validating religious Americans and implying that nonbelievers lack "the most important American value of all."
In God We Trust was made the national motto in 1956, during the intensity of the Cold War. Fear-oriented politics caused much religion to be injected into government in those days (“under God” wording was added to the Pledge of Allegiance just two years earlier). Unfortunately, as time has passed, many - if not most - Americans now seem to be unaware that all of this God language is relatively new, that it didn't originate from the Founding Fathers.
In fact, the framers gave America a motto – E Pluribus Unum (Latin for “Out of Many, One”) – which brilliantly complements the federal character of America: Out of many states, one nation. Though this was good enough for Franklin, Washington, Adams and Jefferson, it didn't stand a chance in the atmosphere of twentieth century postwar America, where the exaltation of religion was preferred.
Realizing that the In God We Trust motto seemed to cross the line into endorsing religion, proponents often insisted that it should not be taken literally, that it was merely a nod to the nation’s religious heritage. But as Rubio showed us, it would be difficult to find any political claim that is more disingenuous (which is especially ironic, since those who made the statement - and many who still make it - claim to be so devoutly religious).
In the fervor of the Republican convention – perhaps thinking he was speaking only to friends and forgetting that the entire nation was watching – Rubio let down his guard. (That is, he spoke honestly about the motto.) He admitted that the motto is understood as a validation of theistic beliefs and a slap in the face to nonbelievers, and he even added that God-belief is what unites Americans as a people. Where do nonbelievers stand in this vision of America?
With such unambiguous anti-secular sentiment in the open, clearly it's time for America to have an honest conversation about it.
Millions of Americans – including over 90 percent of the National Academy of Sciences – do not affirm a belief in divinities. These nonbelievers are contributors to society, as patriotic as anyone else, and they are tired of being pushed to the margins by outlandish statements by men such as Rubio. Ironically, Rubio’s honesty helps demonstrate what America’s seculars have known for a long time: In God We Trust has to go. What was wrong with E Pluribus Unum?
Further discussion of this and related issues can be found in my new book, Nonbeliever Nation: The Rise of Secular Americans (Palgrave Macmillan 2012)