Ever hear the one about the Arab and the camel? Well, the short version goes like this:
An Arab is in his tiny tent in the desert while his camel is tethered outside. It's a cold night and the camel asks the Arab if he can stick his nose in the tent to warm it. The Arab assents ... but then the camel's ears are cold, and then his neck, then his hump ... and the next thing you know, the camel is in the tent and the Arab is out in the cold.
I submit that something very similar has been going on between the government of the United States and Christianity in various forms, practically since the beginning of this nation. Despite the intentions of the Constitution, those who are tasked with representing the people, whether in the House of Representatives, the Senate, any one of the courts of the US, or the president, may bring their own personal religious biases to the job with them, in spite of the oath of office they took “to uphold and defend the Constitution of the United States.” This trend started back in 1864 when the two-cent coin received the inscription: “In God We Trust,” and was formalized on March 3rd of the following year on all US coinage. There was a considerable gap from that point to 1954 when, bowing to pressure from the Knights of Columbus, Congress inserted the phrase, “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance. Two years later, the motto of the United States: “E Pluribus Unum” was replaced with “In God We Trust,” as a further response to the perceived advancement of “godless communism” as represented by the then-Soviet Union. The motto found its way onto paper money in 1957.
Nineteen-seventy-nine saw the emergence of the Moral Majority, whose organizational and voter-registration efforts helped insure the election of Ronald Reagan to the presidency in 1980 and whose lobbying efforts presaged the influence of fundamentalist Christianity on the American political system which persists to this day. Though the Moral Majority was disbanded in 1989, other similar organizations which followed continued applying pressure to advance everything from promoting Creation Science or Intelligent Design in the schoolroom to offering religion-based clubs as after-school activities. Though not all their attempts have been successful, the persistence of the efforts of Christian evangelism have in too many instances made a glaring lie of the “separation of Church and State.”
As an atheist, I look at all of the above and wonder at those in our government who have allowed the encroachment of religion to thrive, despite the injunction of the First Amendment that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.” I’m not alone. Organizations such as the Freedom From Religion Foundation, Americans United, and American Atheists have been taking action against these breaches in the State / Church wall for decades, with considerable success. The problem is that, rather than acting in a preventive and proactive fashion, we’ve been too often reacting to situations once they’ve occurred. There have been arguments as well about whether some issues such as “In God We Trust” on the money is as important as a cross on public property or a state law which permits the teaching of “alternate theories” of how life developed on this planet. One school of thought says that our focus needs to be on the bigger issues.
I disagree. Back in January of this year, I successfully called my city government on a calendar which was clearly promoting Christianity as though it were the only religion practiced there. Michael Newdow has been in an ongoing struggle with the federal government about “In God We Trust” both as the national motto and its imprint on our money. Despite reversals and rulings against him, Michael persists, and I support his efforts. The Bladensburg Cross and its presence as a religious symbol on public land is headed for the Supreme Court, where that principle will be tried before that body and not for the first, second, or third time. Each of these incidents and too many more like them are that camel, trying to move itself one inch further into the secular tent which is our government. If we treat a minor infraction as though it were not worthy of our notice, that lack of response emboldens our opponents to be that much more aggressive in their promotion of their belief system on a government which should be devoid of ANY such presence. Every last one of these violations needs to be confronted and stopped, until the message finally gets through that while religion can be a part of American culture, it has no place in American government.
I will insist on this until the message sinks in: There Are NO Small Battles.