When you walk into a building owned and operated by your city, county, state, or federal government, you generally do so for a reason. Unless you work there or are just sightseeing, you have almost certainly come to this building for a specific purpose. There is some service provided in this building that you need. You are here to accomplish something, and that means that avoiding the building is probably not feasible. You are there because you need to be.
Now suppose that you walk into this government building one day and one of the first things you see is a sign of some sort that says, "In God We Trust." As you probably know, this has been the official motto of the United States since 1956. Despite several legal challenges from church-state activists, courts have repeatedly upheld it. Hopefully, an interesting new approach using the Religious Freedom Restoration Act will finally succeed where the others have failed. But the sign is there now, right in front of you as you enter the building.
When you imagine yourself in this situation, standing there and looking at this sign in the government building where you have come to accomplish something, what thoughts pass through your mind? How do you feel as you stand before this sign?
As many times as I have tried to communicate my thoughts - and especially my feelings - in situations like this, I've never been happy with the result. Nothing I've written on the subject ever seems complete. It is almost as if I lack the vocabulary to express what I feel as I stand before such a sign. Yes, that seems to be exactly what is going on.
Signs and Symbols
In the aftermath of the mass murder in Charleston, we have been hearing quite a bit about symbols. We have discovered that the Confederate flag means different things to different people and that much of what that flag represents to many people is extremely negative. There has been some real activism around encouraging governments to stop promoting this particular symbol. I think this is a good thing, personally. Private individuals who wish to display this symbol should remain free to do so, but it is inappropriate for governments to promote it.
Were I to encounter a "Whites only" sign outside of a museum (and maybe even inside the museum), I'd experience strong negative feelings (e.g., anger, shame, sadness). I'd perceive such a sign as a reminder of hate and bigotry. It would lead me to think about how wrong the majority can be about such basic issues as human dignity and worth. And while it would make me mad to see it, I could at least console myself with the notion that signs like this are no longer a feature of the South (unlike Confederate flags). Even if we haven't made enough progress toward racial equality, we've managed to do away with signs like this. And as small as that may seem at times, it is something.
Similarly, I experience strong negative feelings when I encounter "fag" and other expressions of anti-LGBT hatred scrawled on a wall. While I do not see many official signs bearing such sentiment, there are plenty of other official reminders that anti-LGBT sentiment is alive and well. Same-sex marriage is still illegal in the state where I live, and prominent politicians regularly disparage LGBT rights without facing any adverse consequences. Not surprisingly, unofficial reminders are still fairly common too. Unlike blatant racial bigotry, blatant anti-LGBT bigotry is still socially accepted in many areas. We have an even longer way to go get to anything approaching equality. Much like the "Whites only" sign or the Confederate flag, the anti-LGBT bigotry pisses me off and forces me to confront the dangers of a morally bankrupt majority.
I recognize that if I was Black, I would almost certainly experience a "Whites only" sign or a Confederate flag in a somewhat different way than I do being White. As repugnant as I find such symbols, I cannot claim to know what it would be like to be a Black person standing in front of one of them. If I was gay, seeing similar anti-gay signs would probably affect me somewhat differently too. And while I am neither Black nor gay, I can certainly empathize and do my best to understand and appreciate how those who are might be impacted by such symbols. I can (and do) oppose bigotry even when I am not the target of it.
I Do Not Trust Your God
I am an atheist. I am not part of the "we" who allegedly trusts in some sort of god. And what this sign screams at me as I stand in front of it is simple: "You are not welcome here!" By not being part of the "we," I don't have any business being there. I'm an outsider in my own country, and my government wants to make sure I know that right here in their building.
I know there are plenty of secular Americans who are not bothered even a little bit by the official "In God We Trust" messages. Maybe they don't see it as containing a religious message. Maybe the symbolism has no impact for them. I envy them, for I cannot see it that way. I see it as a reminder that I am not wanted in my own country by my own government and that I will forever be a despised outsider because I don't believe in gods.
Unlike the "Whites only" signs, anti-gay messages, or even Confederate flags, the "In God We Trust" message is everywhere. They are on official state license plates, federal currency, official plaques in government buildings, signs in many private businesses, and bumper stickers on countless pickup trucks. They are everywhere!
I hate to say what I am about to say because I know some will be determined to misinterpret it, but I am going to say it anyway. When I see these signs, it feels like they might as well say, "No fags," "Go back to Africa," or something equally offensive. I know it isn't the same thing. Of course it isn't the same thing! My rational mind knows that quite well. I'm not claiming that how I feel when I see these signs is rational. I'm also not claiming that how I feel in the presence of such a symbol is any way the same as what a Black person feels in front of a Confederate flag or an LGBT person in front of bigoted messages aimed at them. All I'm claiming here is that this is how I feel as I stand before one of them.
What "In God We Trust" says to me each and every time I encounter it is simple:
- You do not belong here in this building or even in this country.
- You are not a real American.
- My own government seeks to distance itself from me.
- I cannot expect to be treated fairly here.
- Only religious believers are welcome here.
Church and State
While I'll never like it, I can look the other way when individuals choose to display "In God We Trust" on their person or property. When a business does this, I can (and do) opt to take my business elsewhere just as I do when I encounter businesses that still discriminate against LGBT customers. I can (and do) steer clear of individuals misguided enough to display this message on their person or property. I can (and do) work to educate others about how this message is perceived by at least some secular Americans. But, and this is important, I will ultimately defend their right to express this objectionable sentiment. This is how free expression works. They have a right to express themselves just as the Ku Klux Klan does. And while I don't like it, I'll continue to defend it.
When our government displays "In God We Trust," however, I cannot stand by and ignore it. I am convinced that this amounts to an unconstitutional promotion of religion and that our government must remain strictly secular. I do not buy for one second that "In God We Trust" has no religious meaning as some courts have tried to tell us. Displaying "In God We Trust" is not consistent with the separation of church and state; it is a promotion of god belief. And so I will continue to support activism aimed at removing such displays from government buildings, federal currency, and the like.
I hope to see the day when local, state, and federal governments throughout the United States finally recognize that a government tasked with representing all people has no business promoting god belief by claiming the blatant falsehood that "we" trust in any sort of god. Maybe after we manage to persuade our governments to stop promoting the Confederate flag, we can turn our attention to this divisive symbol.