An uproar in Alabama over a House bill encouraging the placement of “In God We Trust” in public buildings shows the divisiveness of religion in government.
The pandering bill that aims to “allow” officials to display the national motto in public buildings, unfortunately including public school classrooms, passed yesterday by a 91-4 vote after a contentious debate.
During this debate, state Rep. Arnold Mooney approvingly noted that the phrase first appears in the obscure fourth stanza of “The Star-Spangled Banner” by Francis Scott Key. Mooney stated that Key had represented slaves brought over the slave ship Antelope in the 1820s, asserting that this proved he reflected the values of our country.
“That drew the attention of black legislators, who noted that Key was a slaveholder who prosecuted abolitionists in the 1830s,” the Montgomery Advertiser reports. “Legislators also pointed out the little-sung third stanza of the national anthem includes words that appear to celebrate the deaths of former slaves who enlisted with the British, and quoted Key’s attitudes toward blacks.”
It’s true that Key represented the abolitionist position in the lawsuit over The Antelope in 1825, but that cannot erase his pro-slavery actions. The man who penned the famous words calling the United States “the land of the free” was an evangelical Episcopalian who owned slaves. As district attorney for the city of Washington from 1833-1840, Key used his office to defend slavery. In a lawsuit, U.S. v. Reuben Crandall, Key argued that the property rights of slaveholders outranked the free speech rights of abolitionists. Key even sought, unsuccessfully, to get Crandall hanged!
In the heated two-hour floor debate over the “In God We Trust” bill, state Rep. John Knight observed that Key called African-Americans “a distinct and inferior race of people, which all experience proves is the greatest evil that afflicts the community.”
Added state Rep. John Rogers: “Every individual in this House knew what he stood for. It’s bad. We don’t need this type of division in this House.”
Precisely. Religion in government is divisive, as is racism and religion in our national anthem. The controversial anthem, first adopted in 1931, should not be invoked as the raison d’etre for intermingling God and government. The national anthem was indeed written by a slaveholder who, in part, was celebrating the death and subjugation of former slaves fighting for their freedom (some 6,000 joined the British in the War of 1812).
The divisive debate should encourage the Alabama Senate to kill this bill. As a national motto, “In God We Trust” was added at the height of the Cold War. Since its adoption, this motto has done incalculable mischief, with generations inferring from it that our nation is predicated on God, instead of our godless Constitution separating religion from government. As we always point out, to be accurate the motto would need to read, “In God Some of Us Trust.” And wouldn’t that be a silly motto? The original motto of “E Pluribus Unum” (Out of many, one) reflects that our nation’s strength and unity lies in our diversity, not our orthodoxy.
Congress should not only jettison the godly motto, but replace the national anthem. Most Americans don’t know the words, it’s hard to sing, and it contains deeply offensive views. But, please, let’s not replace it with “God Bless America” (ironically written by the secular Irving Berlin for a musical character), as is periodically suggested.
Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land,” known to schoolchildren all over this country and celebrating fairness and equality, has my vote.