"E Pluribus Unum" becomes controversial

Religious Right seeks to banish inclusive motto

Posted Mar 13, 2011

E Pluribus Unum has never been considered controversial. The motto, which is Latin for "out of many, one," was adopted by the Founding Fathers in 1782 as part of the Great Seal of the United States, intended to represent the federal nature of the nation - out of many states, one country. The framers sharply disputed many issues in the formation of the nation, but E Pluribus Unum was not one of them.

In fact, as the nation's population has grown the motto has taken on a secondary meaning as well, reflecting the country's melting pot nature - out of many peoples, one American people. Certainly, if there's one issue we can all agree on, it's that E Pluribus Unum is an excellent statement of America and its values, right?

Not so fast. The Religious Right, led by Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minnesota) and the Congressional Prayer Caucus (yes, our government actually has a Congressional Prayer Caucus), wants you to know that E Pluribus Unum is, well, almost un-American.

The CPC, a leading voice of religious conservatism on Capitol Hill, recently wrote a letter to President Barack Obama, chastising him for referring to the motto E Pluribus Unum. The letter may very well reflect a new milestone in the culture wars, for never before has E Pluribus Unum been portrayed as controversial. But according to the CPC, Obama's reference to E Pluribus Unum amounts to an anti-God statement. See the letter here.

As the letter shows, to the Prayer Caucus, Obama's reference to E Pluribus Unum borders on unpatriotic. They say he should instead be promoting the motto "In God We Trust," which was adopted as the national motto at the urging of religious conservatives in 1956, during the McCarthy era and at the height of the Cold War.

With all the credibility of public figures who believe the world is only six thousand years old, the caucus wants Obama to "issue a correction." Apparently, referring to the E Pluribus Unum motto is now sacrilege in the Christian right's America. They also say Obama isn't mentioning God enough in his speeches and that he shouldn't refer to "inalienable rights" without mentioning that they come from God.

Should we be concerned that religious conservatives, many of them biblical literalists, wield so much power in modern America, a country founded on Enlightenment principles by men who embraced science and reason? Obviously, we are a country that appreciates religious freedom, and individuals from any religious background are welcome to run for office and serve. But what does it say when large numbers of religious fundamentalists seem to easily glide to victory, while only one of the 535 members of Congress identifies openly as non-theistic (that would be Rep. Pete Stark of California)?

It's interesting that Bachmann and her prayer caucus colleagues often claim to stand for the "values" that America needs, often wrapping themselves in the flag and proclaiming "God Bless America!" Thus the irony that they are the ones who complain about the framers' motto, E Pluribus Unum.

For those who are concerned that an entity called the "Congressional Prayer Caucus" even exists (and is supported in any way by our tax dollars), it seems that promotion of E Pluribus Unum is a means of pushing back against the politicized theology of the Religious Right. By objecting to E Pluribus Unum, the CPC has made it a new point of contention in the culture wars.

Text Copyright 2011 Dave Niose

NONBELIEVER NATION, Dave Niose's new book, is set for release by Palgrave Macmillan in July. Pre-order it here.

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