If you believe Rick Saccone, the Pennsylvania lawmaker sponsoring a bill to erect “In God We Trust” signs in public schools, he doesn’t want to use the apparatus of government to proselytize his religious views: “This isn’t about evangelizing,” Saccone told reporters last week, insisting that the proposed signs aren’t an effort to endorse God-belief or invalidate nonbelievers.
If that’s so, one could reasonably question what purpose such signs would serve. A posted message affirming not just a belief in a God (whose existence, of course, can't be proved), but a collective trust in that God, would seem to serve few purposes other than to validate theism. But alas, this query was answered by none other than Fox News, which clarified the Republican legislator’s motivation, reporting as follows: “Saccone said the motto would fit well with the state’s local history curriculum.”
So there you have it—we need “In God We Trust” signs in public schools not because Saccone, a devout Christian, has any interest in promoting belief in God, but because he is earnestly concerned about history curricula. Interestingly, however, Saccone's strategy of promoting knowledge of history through religious messaging is not shared by actual educational experts, who instead suggest that history education is best furthered by peculiar practices like reading history books, watching informative documentaries, and reviewing other substantive materials. In fact, neither the American Historical Association nor the Society for History Education endorse “In God We Trust” signs as a means of instilling a comprehensive knowledge of history. But what would they know?
Saccone's fondness for religiously flavored history lessons is a recurring pattern, as we see from other efforts that he has led. For example, last year he was prime sponsor of a resolution to declare a “Year of the Bible,” a measure that alluded to history while expressly calling the Bible "the word of God" and urging "faith in God and holy scripture." He was also prime sponsor of another resolution to declare a day of fasting and prayer, again with historical references and express theistic language.
Saccone wryly suggests that such measures are “noncontroversial,” which is remarkable given the firestorm of protest that they have ignited (including, in the case of the Year of the Bible, a lawsuit), and he also insists that these proposals have nothing to do with promoting theism or discriminating against those millions of Americans who happen to hold non-theistic views.
Sticking with the "noncontroversial" pitch, Saccone told reporters last week that support for his sign proposal was “500 to 1” in favor, but his Facebook page suggested otherwise. Underneath an October 25 Facebook posting by him about the sign proposal, a majority of comments objected to it. When I questioned him about this via a comment of my own, he replied privately that those objections did not come from his constituents. He also removed my comment and some others that were not supportive.
Saccone’s improbable claim that he is not trying to proselytize is ironic, given that his religion demands honesty from its adherents, but his willingness to stretch the truth is arguably an example of how ends can justify means when there is a belief that one is fighting for God. The law forbids governmental promotion of any religious doctrine over others, so Saccone must bend around the law (and the truth) to inject his God-belief into public schools by claiming that the signs are for historical purposes. Such disingenuous claims can be justified in the devoutly religious mind, because they are made in defense of God.
The entire controversy is evidence that “In God We Trust” is invidious by its nature. It's bad enough that the affirmation appears on currency among many other phrases and terms, but to place it constantly in the faces of schoolchildren would take it to another level. The end result of Saccone's proposal would be that atheist-humanist children would be confronted each day with official governmental signage promoting God-belief, constantly reminding them that they are outsiders. These children and their tax-paying families are as much a part of the fabric of this nation as anyone else, and they don't deserve such treatment.
The "In God We Trust" motto was adopted only in 1956, during the height of the Cold War, and it of course portrays atheism as un-American. Before its adoption, the de-facto motto of the nation had always been “E Pluribus Unum” (Latin for “out of many, one”) which the founders wisely emblazed on the Great Seal of the United States in the 1780s. If Saccone were truly interested in history, he would be putting “E Pluribus Unum” signs in schools—but that would do nothing to evangelize his God-belief.
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David Niose’s book, Nonbeliever Nation, is available here