While the U.S. is the most churchgoing nation in Christendom, Kentucky is among the most churchgoing of our states.
Woe betide any atheist or agnostic who dares run for office from Paducah to Pikeville. An infidel would probably have a tough row to hoe even in “liberal” Louisville.
Most Kentucky public school teachers, principals, staffers, and students who are religious are Christians.
But a group called the Kentucky Prayer Caucus is pushing a pair of bills in the state House of Representatives that would require “In God We Trust” signs to be posted inside every public schoolhouse. Two Republicans are sponsoring one measure; the duo and nine other GOP lawmakers are behind the second one.
“The Freedom From Religion Foundation is mobilizing to stop the bills, so let’s boldly declare our support for ‘In God We Trust’!” trumpets an email sent to voters by Mike Corder and Bill Martin, Bluegrass State directors of the Congressional Prayer Caucus Foundation.
The emails urge recipients to “please contact your representative to show your support,” and to pray for the measures to pass and forward the emails to family and friends so they, too, might supplicate themselves and seek Divine endorsement for the bills.
The Congressional Prayer Foundation, according its website, aims to “protect religious freedom, preserve America’s Judeo-Christian heritage, and promote prayer.”
Safeguard “religious freedom” from whom? The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a straw man. I’d bet most Kentuckians have never heard of it.
The FFRF website doesn’t say the group is out to nix religion. Rather, the FFRF “works as an umbrella for those who are free from religion and are committed to the cherished principle of separation of state and church.”
Kentuckians, including Baptists, support separation of church and state
A multitude of Kentucky Christians are all in for separation of church and are skeptical of the “In God We Trust” legislation. Some wonder, with all the weighty issues facing our state, why lawmakers are wasting their time—and our tax dollars—on the two bills. (It’s called pandering.)
Baptist Bruce Maples, who bosses this blog, likens the legislation to the legendary camel’s schnoz under the tent.
“This bill is part of a larger effort called ‘Project Blitz,’ an effort by the Christian Right to enact laws favoring their policies at the state level,” he wrote. “Project Blitz has been called ‘ALEC for the Christian Right,’ and includes a 116-page ‘playbook’ of model bills and talking points.”
Added Maples: “The ‘In God We Trust’ bill (IGWT) is one of 20 model bills included in the Project Blitz playbook. Similar bills have been, and are being, filed all over the country. Even though seemingly innocuous, the bills are being used to lay a groundwork for talking about the United States as ‘a Christian nation’ and to prepare the way for other bills, including variations on the theme of ‘religious freedom’ as justification for discrimination, such as anti-LGBT adoption laws.”
He also invites fellow Baptists who back the bills study some church history. No denomination has more zealously supported strict church-state separation than the Baptists, Maples adds.
I taught history for two dozen years. He’s right.
Worried about Uncle Sam starting a state church like the Church of England, the Baptists of Danbury, Conn., sought reassurance from newly elected President Thomas Jefferson in 1801. He replied that the First Amendment to the Constitution—which guarantees freedom of and from religion—in effect builds “a wall of separation between Church & State.”
So where did IGWT come from?
Most of America’s founders were deists; not many were orthodox Christians. Whatever else they disagreed on, they insisted on a constitution that separated church and state.
Though Americans of faith are Christians, America isn’t a Christian nation, a point President John Adams, a Unitarian, hammered home. “The government of the United States is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion,” His Rotundity said.
Adams’ argument would be dismissed as heresy in many churches in Kentucky. White, conservative, evangelical Protestantism has been the dominant religion hereabouts since the fire-and-brimstone Second Great Awakening of the late 18th- and early 19th- century.
“In God We Trust” appeared on coins as early as the Civil War. But it didn’t become the official national motto until the 1950s when “under God” also was added to the Pledge of Allegiance. Both were byproducts of the cold war against “godless, atheistic” communism. (“Godless atheists” are the worst kind.)
Some Christians gladly claim the “persecuted” label, and gin up a “crisis” for a simple reason
Sociologist David Nickell said conservative Christians like those behind the “In God We Trust” measures often protest that “secularists” in government, entertainment, and the media persecute them for their for their beliefs.
“It’s part of their identity,” explained Nickell, who teaches sociology and philosophy at West Kentucky Community and Technical College in Paducah. (My office was next door to his for years.)
“it is difficult to mount a rational response to an irrational challenge,” said Nickell. “You can’t give a rational response to an irrational argument that is based entirely out of emotion and passion.”
He cited supporters of President Trump’s border wall. (Not coincidentally, white evangelicals are among the most ardent Trump loyalists.) “It is absolutely useless to point out to them that the number of people coming across the border is the lowest it’s been in decades; they want to believe it’s a crisis.”
Groups like the Prayer Caucus have been yelping about a long running “crisis” in public schools triggered by the “godless” Supreme Court decision that “banned prayer from the classroom.”
The high court did no such thing. It ruled (6-1) in Engle v. Vitale (1962) that school-sponsored prayer violated the First Amendment’s establishment clause.
“As long as there are history tests, there will be prayer in school,” I used to tell my students.
“I have students tell me all the time that you can’t even pray in schools,” Nickell said. “I tell them absolutely you can pray in school all you want to. You just can’t force everyone else to pray, and you cannot claim you are being persecuted just because you’re not allowed to impose your ideas on everybody else.”
He said having a common enemy–from liberals and labor unions to The Freedom From Religion Foundation and LGBT rights groups–unites conservative fundamentalists, religious or political.
When there is no real threat to them, Nickell said, “they have to manufacture one. You manufacture a threat to hold the people together and build support.”
The dangers of bills like this
Nickell conceded that the “In God We Trust” legislation will probably pass. Gov. Matt Bevin is a Republican and a born-again Christian. The GOP holds super-majorities in both houses of the legislature. Most Republican senators and representatives are Christian conservatives.
But Nickell suspects—and I do, too—that some Democrats in rural areas, where fundamentalism is strongest in the state, will exercise the CYA option and vote for the bills, too. Seat preservation is the first law of a lot of legislators.
“For much of our existence, the United States never included God in its motto, on its currency, or in any document creating the Republic. We were born a secular nation and must remain one to sustain our future, unless we want to go the way of ISIS,” John Schweitzer wrote in The Huffington Post.
“Our founding fathers understood well the extraordinary danger of mixing religion and politics; we forget that lesson at our great peril. If we forget, just glance over to the Middle East.Our founding fathers understood well the extraordinary danger of mixing religion and politics; we forget that lesson at our great peril. If we forget, just glance over to the Middle East.Click To Tweet
Schweitzer continues: “I tremble in fear for my country when the majority of conservatives believe we are a Christian nation; that frightening majority has forgotten our history, ignored our founding principles, and abandoned our most cherished ideal of separating church and state. In mixing religion and politics, the religious right subverts both. And the world suffers.”
So do states like ours, where I’ve lived all my 69 years. Public schools in Kentucky need “In God We Trust” signs like a Kentucky bluegill needs a bicycle.Public schools in Kentucky need 'In God We Trust' signs like a Kentucky bluegill needs a bicycle.Click To Tweet