National Journal: Reaffirming National Motto: Divisive Symbolism or Pressing Need?

Reaffirming National Motto: Divisive Symbolism or Pressing Need?
"In God We Trust" resolution is sparking controversy.

by Billy House, National Journal
Wednesday, March 23, 2011 | 2:45 p.m.

The nation faces massive debt. Hill lawmakers remain unable to reach agreement on this year’s budget (and must start working soon on a budget agreement for next year). And the military action in Libya comes on the heels of wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

It is against this busy and complex backdrop that some members of Congress are working on another concern -- reaffirming “In God We Trust” as the national motto.

That’s correct: reaffirming. A declaration of that phrase as the national motto was passed by Congress and signed by President Eisenhower as the law of the land in 1956, at the height of the Cold War.

But on Thursday, the House Judiciary Committee approved a resolution sponsored by Rep. Randy Forbes, R-Va., and co-sponsored by 64 others that, among other things, “supports and encourages the public display of the national motto in all public buildings, public schools and other government institutions.”

Forbes introduced his resolution last year. With Republicans now in control of the House, the reintroduced measure has gained more traction. A floor vote may be scheduled soon, although no date had been set as of Wednesday.

But this week, a coalition of atheists, agnostics, humanists, and others -- who argue the resolution is unneeded, inappropriate, and not inclusive of the beliefs of all Americans -- has launched a campaign urging citizens to e-mail lawmakers about their opposition.

As many as 2,100 e-mails already have been sent to lawmakers objecting to the resolution, say leaders of the Secular Coalition for America.

“To me, as a former legislator myself, I was always skeptical of this kind of symbolic resolution,” said SCA Executive Director Sean Faircloth, who served for a decade in the Maine State Legislature, his last term as the Democratic majority whip.

While it may score political points for its sponsors, Faircloth contends, it also sends an inappropriate message that the religious views of certain Americans stand superior to others. He argues it is a message that some Founding Fathers such as James Madison also would have objected to.

Beyond its potential for causing division, Faircloth also questions the timing of the effort to “reaffirm” the motto, given the pressing list of other concerns facing Congress,

But Forbes, in an op-ed posted on his office Web site, explains why his resolution is necessary. He says recent years have seen efforts to change the national motto “in a de facto manner” and notes that President Obama himself wrongly claimed while traveling in Indonesia last fall that the national motto is “E Pluribus Unum.”

“Federal agencies and departments have been instructed that the phrase not be posted in those buildings,” Forbes writes. “The effect on our public schools has been chilling, as teachings and administrators do not know whether they can post our national motto on their walls.”

Forbes also notes he and other lawmakers two years ago had to stand up and prevent planners of the Capitol Visitor Center from putting “E Pluribus Unum” in stone there as the national motto, and instead chisel the words, “In God We Trust.”

“These omissions and inaccuracies are a part of a larger pattern we are seeing that inaccurately reflect America and undercut important parts of our nation’s history,” Forbes says.

This article is available for National Journal subscribers here.

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