It’s not a big controversy like some This is True stories have generated, but there has been considerable confusion generated by two stories from the 13 August 2000 issue. Now, it’s true that I write ambiguously on purpose sometimes to spark the readers to think about an issue. What did he mean by that, now? isn’t such a bad response sometimes. But with the two stories in question, I was perhaps too subtle, too ambiguous, in my sarcasm and criticism, leaving readers unclear on just what I meant or, worse, thinking I meant the opposite of what I wished to convey. This page is an attempt to change that. First, the stories, then some background, and then some feedback.
We The People
A group of 450 Muslim families in the predominantly white, Christian town of Palos Heights, Ill., had no place to worship, so they agreed to purchase an unused church for $2.1 million and turn it into a mosque. Local townspeople were aghast, and when one suggested to the City Council that the Muslims should convert to Christianity or “go back to [their] own countries,” the Council voted to give the group $200,000 to drop their purchase plans. Mayor Dean Koldenhoven called the action embarrassing, fiscally irresponsible and an insult to Muslims, and vetoed it. (AP) …Per the Constitution, “Freedom of Religion” means Freedom of Religion for everyone.
In Order To Form a More Perfect Union
The Colorado Board of Education has voted to encourage schools to post the motto “In God We Trust” in all schools. No way, says the Jefferson County School Board, which oversees the bullet-riddled Columbine High. “In a time where there are already many lines dividing our children in schools, one more reason to point to differences cannot help,” said Anti-Defamation League regional director Saul Rosenthal in applauding the decision. The state points out that the motto is included on U.S. currency and would be “a way to celebrate national heritage.” (AP) …Despite the Constitution, “Freedom of Religion” doesn’t include Freedom From Religion.
The first is pretty straightforward; virtually everyone understood that I was praising the mayor, and lecturing the city council (hey, morons: “Freedom of Religion” applies to everyone, not just you idiotic public servants”!) (Update: After the mayor was voted out of office for having the audacity to uphold religious freedom in his city, he was awarded The John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award.)
The second story — or, really, its tagline (my follow-on comment at the end) — is not as clear. Here it is spelled out in painful detail: The Constitution guarantees “Freedom of Religion”, which also includes “Freedom From Religion” — the freedom not to worship. Despite that guarantee, not everyone actually gets that freedom. What’s my thinking on that? Americans tend to think religion is the exact same thing as Christianity. Of course, it isn’t — the vast majority of the world population is not Christian. So since “Belief in God” and “religion” are considered absolutely equal by so many, few see anything wrong with promoting God — to the point where school boards are insisting that mottos such as “In God We Trust” and Christianity’s Ten Commandments should be posted in public (read: government-funded) schools.
But what of the people who don’t believe in the Christian God? Not just atheists, but (say) Buddhists? Or Muslims? The attitude of the people of Palos Heights, Ill. — that these people should convert to Christianity or “go back to [their] own countries” — is disgusting, but common. In other words, the freedoms this country were founded on are only good for some people — the “right kind” of people — and not to others — the wrong kind of people, different people. Bull!
The First Amendment’s guarantee is for all Americans. And what a powerful thing it is: One hundred years ago, social scientists predicted that belief in God would decrease by the end of the century because of the secularization of society. In fact, the opposite has occurred. (Source: How We Believe: The Search for God in an Age of Science by Michael Shermer, 1999.) Yet despite the fact that the First Amendment has allowed religion to grow like it never has before, some Christians would deny others the same right to practice their own religion. Forcing slogans on people such as “In God We Trust” denies the rights of people to make up their own minds, to pursue their own rights. Such thinking deserves to be revealed as the hypocrisy it is.
Many people think a motto such as “In God We Trust” is very innocuous and, really, not particularly religious. They point to the fact that it is on every piece of money issued by the United States government. That motto is, in fact, on money for religious reasons — contrary to the clear words of the First Amendment. It’s not just my opinion that it’s there for religious reasons: the U.S. Treasury readily admits it in their history paper, “History of the Motto ‘In God We Trust'” (available online here), which admits in part:
The motto IN GOD WE TRUST was placed on United States coins largely because of the increased religious sentiment existing during the Civil War. Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase received many appeals from devout persons throughout the country, urging that the United States recognize the Deity on United States coins. From Treasury Department records, it appears that the first such appeal came in a letter dated November 13, 1861. It was written to Secretary Chase by Rev. M. R. Watkinson, Minister of the Gospel from Ridleyville, Pennsylvania.
The Congress passed the Act of April 22, 1864 [to allow the motto on] the one-cent coin and authorized the minting of the two-cent coin…. Another Act of Congress passed on March 3, 1865. It allowed the Mint Director, with the Secretary’s approval, to place the motto on all gold and silver coins that “shall admit the inscription thereon.”
The motto has been in continuous use on the one-cent coin since 1909, and on the ten-cent coin since 1916. It also has appeared on all gold coins and silver dollar coins, half-dollar coins, and quarter-dollar coins struck since July 1, 1908. A law passed by the 84th Congress (P.L. 84-140) and approved by the President on July 30, 1956, the President approved a Joint Resolution of the 84th Congress, declaring IN GOD WE TRUST the national motto of the United States. IN GOD WE TRUST was first used on paper money in 1957, when it appeared on the one-dollar silver certificate. The first paper currency bearing the motto entered circulation on October 1, 1957. The Bureau of Engraving and Printing (BEP) was converting to the dry intaglio printing process. During this conversion, it gradually included IN GOD WE TRUST in the back design of all classes and denominations of currency.
The history notes that the slogan was first used on paper money in 1957, but was not widely on currency until the mid-1960s.
If you’re an American, all the money in your pocket declares a motto which you may not believe in or, worse, declares something you specifically may not believe. Tough: it’s there anyway. Thus, you are not being afforded a right guaranteed to all citizens by the Constitution’s Bill of Rights, hence: Despite the Constitution, “Freedom of Religion” doesn’t include Freedom From Religion.
Readers Comments on the Issue
(Roughly in the order received.)
Gah, the people [on the City Council] are a disgrace to my religion! (Christianity.) I live in a Muslim country and know full well what it is like to be discriminated against for my religion & race. I’m glad mayor Koldenohoven understands what Freedom of Religion means. The state should be neutral towards people’s expressions of faith. An anti-religion state is just as despotic as a state church. A good government needs to walk that balanced line of neutrality. –Ian, Malaysia
As an atheist, although I’m fairly tolerant of others’ beliefs, having religion forced down my throat does gall me at times. You comment is quite apt. –Riley, California
If you wanted proof that non-Christians are offended by having such things forced on them, there it is. Those who have their rights need to stick up for those who are denied the same rights. Anything else is hypocrisy.
Do not sell any goohf cards to the christians in palos heights. What’s wrong with muslims praying inside a building where christians once prayed? As the christians know, it is important for people to gather for prayers. Without a proper gathering place, it is difficult to get everyone together. I am a muslim, and the muslim community here has rented churches before we had our own buildings. We respect them, and expect that they respect us (which they do). –Imran, BC, Canada
Not all of the Christians in Palos Heights are idiotic hypocrites. I’m happy to send the cards to anyone with enough of a sense of humor — and comfort in their own beliefs — to order them.
I’m Jewish. Your first article about a group of Moslems being told (by the City Council no less!) to “Get Lost!” confirms for me why I shudder every time I hear certain (By no means all, just certain) Christians say they want to make this a “Christian Country” or they want to “bring this country to Jesus”. God forbid! Literally! I don’t want to sound intolerant myself, but I hope those patriotic, hard-working, tax-paying, civic-minded, 1st-Amendment using, Moslems sue the pants off of Palos Heights. –Peter, location not given
It is a sad commentary about America when I have to read stories such as those two regarding religion in this country. I wonder what is going to happen when white Christians are no longer the majority in America. –Robert, Missouri
The fact that people have forgotten that “In God We Trust” was not added to paper money until 1955 (during the height of the cold war and the McCarthy era) and then refer to its use as “heritage” just goes to show the wedge effect such entanglement can have. –Eric, Michigan
Posting scriptures (and such) that those same founding fathers used as the basis for all the original documents hardly is forcing anyone to worship. When you go to a wedding are you having the faith of the presiding pastor forced on you? Posting “In GOD We Trust” won’t make anyone trust anything they don’t want to. Since when do we have to cater to every little whining faction? You had better be carefull or this politically correct crap will make most of your jokes illegal. –Mitch, Missouri
Oh dear, where do I start?
1) I sincerely doubt the proposition that “all men are created equal” came from scripture; the U.S. was specifically not founded on religious grounds (Source: The Treaty with Tripoli in 1797, which declared that “the government of the United States is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion.” The treaty was written under Washington’s presidency, and approved by the Senate under John Adams.)
2) Many of our “founding fathers” were extremely vocal in their disdain for religion. For example: “Ecclesiastical establishments tend to great ignorance and corruption, all of which facilitate the execution of mischievous projects.” –James Madison, 1774 (Source: Positive Atheism, no longer online) and “I almost shudder at the thought of alluding to the most fatal example of the abuses of grief which the history of mankind has preserved — the Cross. Consider what calamities that engine of grief has produced!” –John Adams, 1820 (source), which is remarkable considering the time.
3) Some of the early settlers of this country were puritans who were upset with the official — government-sponsored — church in England, which put down other religions as second class. Our forefathers saw how disgusting that was and guaranteed via the First Amendment that it wouldn’t happen here. Yet that is exactly what you are trying to do — make others second-class citizens after you have benefited from that guarantee. That’s surely a classic example of the hypocrisy Jesus himself railed against.
4) I’ll bet if your kids had to recite and memorize the Koran, you’d not be too happy about it. Yet it’s certainly the scripture of a mainstream, established religion. What makes it any different than Christianity? Nothing but your bias. Whose bias do you want forced on schoolchildren? I say no one’s bias is palatable, least of all government bureaucrats’ — and certainly “the majority” is also abhorrent, as the puritan emigrants discovered.
5) It’s interesting that you’d dismiss the majority of the population of the planet as “little whining factions”. Perhaps the Christian minority should be forced to shut up? No, I didn’t think you’d find that palatable, either.
Thanks for running the Palos Heights story. I live in a neighboring suburb. What amazes me most about this issue is that when I talk to older adults about it, their reaction is “yeah…they have a right to…but…,” or something to that effect. Incredible! It’s really easy to see examples of bigotry in other communities, and I thought that when it came to the surface in my own community, it would be ridiculous and laughable. (No doubt it is to all your readers.) It just doesn’t occur to people around here that the thousands of Muslim families in the Chicago southwest area would need a place to pray. I hope that, by bringing this embarrassing story to national attention, you have helped a few Americans discover their own latent bigotry. Thank you for the service you do for the intelligent people of the email community. –Carrie, Illinois
I realize that the first story about the Muslims in Illinois was sad, and I will be the first to agree that the actions of the townspeople were wrong; however, to put it into perspective, if a group of Christians wanted to build a church in a predominantly Muslim country, they a) wouldn’t be let into the country at all b) wouldn’t be permitted to even assemble c) wouldn’t be even considered for purchasing an old mosque and d) would probably be beaten or worse for even attempting the endeavor. Muslim countries openly persecute Christians, and there are no laws to protect them. America is not perfect, but no one gets away with mass bigotry on the scale that it goes on in countries like the Sudan, Egypt, or Iran. –Drew, North Carolina
You are of course correct. What makes the U.S. different is our Bill of Rights. But even with those rights, some would have us be just the same as the countries you cite. What is wrong there is wrong here, too. As the next letter shows clearly.
I live in Nashville, Tennessee, and the story about the Muslims struck a chord with me. I know a group of Kurdish families who came here to escape persecution in Iraq. They recently bought a secular building to use as an “educational center”. A friend of mine who was helping them set up was taken aside by one of them and quietly asked if it would be all right if they used a small section of the building for worship. They were afraid that if they tried to practice their religion, the building would be taken away from them. Ironic, isn’t it, that people leave their homelands to escape persecution, but, because of the reputation of the United States, and the South in particular, they come to “the land of the free” fully expecting to find intolerance? –Christopher, Tennessee
And all too often, they find it.
I think that it’s bad enough that the USA is turning away from God. “Freedom not to worship…” True, but maybe we forgot Whom helped this country get started in the first place. May all the atheists burn. –Marty, North Carolina
See “Hypocrite” and “right and wrong”, above. Attitudes like yours are much more damaging to Christianity than atheists ever will be.
I’m a regular churchgoer who takes his faith seriously, and I am raising my kids to do the same; I think the values imbued by my religious heritage are crucial to living a decent and good life. But I don’t want the grubby hands of government coming anywhere near it with any official act whatever. Will it do anyone any harm to have “In God We Trust” posted in classrooms by government fiat? Indeed it will, very real harm — but not because it will offend Buddhists or make atheists feel oppressed or any such nonsense. That line of argument misses the point by a million miles. The harm comes from having God, faith and the walls of a public school debased into fodder for the hollow pandering of hacks. Anyone who thinks the craven politicians of Colorado (or any other state) propose these things for any other reason than to cynically curry favor with the religious right is just naive. Even school children will get the real message: “In God We Posture.” THAT is the evil (in modern manifestation) that the founding fathers foresaw and tried in the First Amendment to ward off with the establishment clause — and right they were, though America has only sporadically lived up to the ideal. It’s also worth noting that the Bill of Rights isn’t the only decalogue of rules that proscribes what Colorado wants to do. Remember the bit about taking a certain Name in vain? –Pat, New York
Well said, though I think Buddhists and atheists are as deserving of their rights as anyone.
Nowhere does anything guarantee anyone freedom from religion. In fact, too often, by going so far out of the way to completely isolate someone from religion, we completely step on other’s freedom of religion and that is wrong, and that needs to stop. I realize that your one-liners at the end of each of your stories are simply meant to be humorous zingers…and they are. But, this story is an example of this whole problem. Keeping religion out of schools clearly has been a failure, as bullet riddled Columbine High can attest. Bringing God back in would at least be partway toward a solution. –Brad, Arizona
How about “In Satan We Trust”, then, Brad? Surely you’ll agree that since the kids’ daily pledge to “One nation, under God” hasn’t worked, we should try a different religion in order to save them.
Does it really take a Brit to point out that the official motto of the US is in fact “e pluribus unum”, which is not only also included on the currency, but fits perfectly with the Jefferson County School Board’s aims? –Francis, United Kingdom
Down here in Texas we went through this sort of thing with the pre-football game prayer. As I’m sure you know, the Supreme Court struck down student-led “voluntary” prayer before a football game. If it was going to be continued, I was going to try and volunteer to lead a prayer before an upcoming game. I was then going to go to the local mosque and have an Islamic prayer put together and read it at the game. I’m sure that if I would have survived the ordeal, my point on not subjecting a captive audience in a public (state) forum to a different religion would have been lost on them. At least I would have seen the irony in it. –Jeff, Texas
If you do it, when you get out of the hospital please send me the newspaper clips. I suspect it would all be True material….
As public consciousness is raised about the contradictions between our Constitutional ideals and our actual practices, our practices are getting eliminated to conform with our enshrined ideals. –Dan, Rhode Island
I hope you’re right, but I fear you’re wrong. I’ll keep trying anyway, though. If you support that, and don’t already have a subscription to This is True, please do show your support by subscribing in the box above.