13 June 2008

On Trusting and Post Offices

American presidents such as Theodore Roosevelt strongly disapproved of the idea of evoking God within the context of a "cheap" political motto. In a letter to William Boldly on November 11, 1907, President Roosevelt wrote: "My own feeling in the matter is due to my very firm conviction that to put such a motto on coins, or to use it in any kindred manner, not only does no good but does positive harm, and is in effect irreverence, which comes dangerously close to sacrilege... it seems to me eminently unwise to cheapen such a motto by use on coins, just as it would be to cheapen it by use on postage stamps, or in advertisements."

from Wikipedia

Last night I got one of those typical "outraged" e-mail forwards, about someone being required to take down a sign reading "In God We Trust." In this case, it was at several post offices. That much of the story is true. What is not true is that there was any sort of religious issue involved. If the posters had been of Celine Dion, a waterfall, a half-naked man, or anything else, they would still have been in violation of a very simple postal regulation that prohibits the "depositing or posting of handbills, flyers, pamphlets, signs, posters, placards, or other literature (except official postal and other governmental notices and announcements) in interior public areas on postal premises." (from Snopes).

When I pointed this out to my mom, she actually suggested that a specific exemption for that phrase (In God We Trust) be made. Now, if I wanted a specific exemption for the phrase, "There is no God but Allah and Muhammed is his prophet," or for "Buddha gained enlightenment under the Bodhi tree" or anything similar, she'd have a fit. But for her particular religious leanings, an exemption is supposed to be okay. This example illustrates quite nicely that the use of such phrases is little more than institutionalized bigotry against dissenters. I even got the typical persecution complex reaction, that banning the phrase is somehow prohibiting free exercise of religion. Er, no. Especially not in this case where it is not the phrase that is banned, but non-official posters of any sort. Allowing that phrase as a specific exception is a violation, however.

It's probably worth pointing out that, for legal purposes, "In God We Trust" on coinage is not considered religious but patriotic. In other words, the "God" being referred to bears no connection to any deity of any extant religion beyond generic patriotism. To my mind, that makes it idolatry to any of the Abrahamic traditions. This makes it particularly ironic that it is usually people from Christian traditions who oppose the removal of the phrase.

I'm pretty much indifferent to the phrase myself, but for those who are bothered by it, the way to remove it from currency is not to insist that it's unconstitutional. That should be a secondary argument if used at all. The way to get rid of it is to make it abundantly clear what, exactly, the phrase stands for. It is part "Civil Religion", not Christianity or Judaism or Islam or Wicca or Hinduism, etc. There's often a "wink and nod" attitude, that, of course, it refers to the Christian god and no other, but that is not how the courts read it, nor is that how it is actually used in mainstream politics. It is "God" in the same way that the Roman Emperor was considered a "god" and little more.

Back to the e-mail, the "solution" suggested was to write "In God We Trust" on every envelope mailed through the post office. The roguish part of me would prefer to pick random deities to substitute. "In Vishnu We Trust" has a nice ring to it. The more serious part of me would prefer to write something more useful, like "Separation of Church and State" or "Remember the Establishment Clause" or "This Envelope Intentionally Left Blank." Either way, my mom really should know better than to send me forwards like this by now.

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