In the past week, Michael Newdow, the man who lost his lawsuit against “under God” in the pledge of allegiance on a technicality, lost his lawsuit concerning the use of the words “In God We Trust” on US currency. The federal judge based his decision on a previous case from the early 1970’s that upheld the words on the currency. Using Aronow v. United States, the court ruled that the motto is a “secular motto” having only a spiritual, psychological and inspirational value.
The topic came up with some co-workers who were upset that Newdow was making a big deal out of some words. What is more disturbing is that even some of my atheist friends make the same complaint. They tell me that Newdow’s efforts make believers hate us more and it is a waste of time to raise these complaints.
It all reminds me of the time I had to explain, to another friend, why such words about God go against all that this country is suppose to stand for and why it is harmful. I used a sports analogy. This one may not make sense to people outside of Ohio.
Imagine you live in a small town in Ohio and are a huge fan of the Ohio State Buckeyes. The majority of the town as well as the elected officials are bigger fans of the University of Michigan. Every football season the town council issues a resolution in support of U of M in their annual battle with Ohio State. Before council meetings the members lead those at the meeting in singing of the Michigan fight song. You find out that the council and the majority of the town either were born in Michigan or went to the University.
You complain that they are showing unfairness to non-michiganders. The council says they are only celebrating their U of M heritage.
While it is true, in this case, that such actions to confer special status for a group of people doesn’t “harm” people left out it does institutionalize separate classes of people. The “state” uses its time and tax payer dollars to give special attention to a particular group of people who happen to have something in common. Such actions ignore the plurality that is inherent in our democracy and that plurality makes those actions suspect.
Newdow explained the difference in a television interview when he compared the words “under God” in the pledge to the past practice of having separate water fountains for whites and blacks in the South. He noted that blacks still had water and the water was the same as what the whites drank but the practice was ended because it treated a group of people unfairly.
Or how about the debate in some southern states concerning the display of the Confederate flag on state property. It is claimed that it is just flag celebrating history but to others it symbolizes the entire era of slavery and the Jim Crow laws that followed the Confederate loss in 1864.
This isn’t about removing “God” from the public square – never has been. It is about holding our elected officials to the spirit of what it means to be neutral in a religious context. Singling out a specific sect for special treatment and recognition laughs at our democracy and makes a farce out of claims to be “only celebrating our heritage”. You never see a government (local, state, of federal) trying to single out any other sect but Christianity for special treatment.
Newdow’s fight against “some words” has some big implications and is neither trivial nor waste of time.