It’s election year in the United States and an episode from the very recent past may be prologue to an election season like nothing we’ve seen since the McCarthy era. The Christian Right recently sprung a trap, the origin of which is contained in a state legislative playbook on “religious freedom” I recently exposed here on RD.
The Minnesota State Senate recently debated, before passing by a wide margin, an amendment to an education bill that would allow privately funded displays of the national motto, In God We Trust in the public schools. Little did Democratic opponents of the measure expect they would soon be denounced on Fox News by the bill’s sponsor, Republican Senator Dan Hall, as part of an “anti-faith movement” that seeks to “suppress” religion and “wipe it out of government.”
Video snippets of opposing remarks by two Senate Democrats were subsequently featured on Fox & Friends. In one of these, State Senator John Marty said he found the display of In God We Trust on currency “offensive,” apparently in light of the culture of religious pluralism and religious equality intended by the Framers of the Constitution.
Host Pete Hegseth and Hall claimed that they thought the bill would be “non-controversial” and expressed surprise that there was opposition. Then Hegseth asked “Why is God, the mention of God in our schools controversial to the Left today?” Hall replied that “There seems to be an anti-faith movement in our country—to suppress anything that is religious in any way and wipe it out of government.” Hall went on to say it was a matter of “religious freedom” to post In God We Trust in the schools.
Hegseth concluded the segment by claiming, “When we stripped God out of the schools, we replaced it with something else—like ideological indoctrination, and we are seeing the fruits of that right now.”
Unstated was that the amendment is based on a model bill, the “National Motto Display Act” produced by “Project Blitz”—a Christian Right campaign to advance its religious and political agenda in the states. It’s also important to note that Hall is co-chair of the state legislative “prayer caucus”—an affiliate of the National Prayer Caucus Foundation which produced the model bill. Unsurprisingly, the segment closely followed the talking points and political strategy behind the bill.
The playbook advised that the national motto bill would receive little opposition. “I just figured the opposition would be really short,” Hall said. “When I started hearing more and more of this I thought, really? They don’t want it that much in their schools?”
The authors of the legislative playbook also advise: “It is critical to think strategically.” Thus legislators are urged to consider, “before filing any piece of religious liberty legislation” to assess the probability of success once they have established their goal: “Is it passage? To educate fellow legislators and the public on an issue? To get opponents on a recorded vote? To change the terms of the discussion?”
Whatever Hall’s intention, the outcome in this instance was not only passage and getting his opponents on the record—but he was able cast them as opponents of God and country on Fox News.
Meanwhile in Oklahoma, Governor Mary Fallin signed into law a bill that has been labeled as (and opposed as) a bill that allows the Ten Commandments to be posted in public schools, and government buildings, but it is actually more than that and appears to be based on the model “Civic Literacy Act”, which has a section that calls for allowing the posting of “writings, documents, and records … that reflect the history of the United States, including, but not limited to, (i) the preamble to the Constitution of this State; (ii) the Declaration of Independence; (iii) the United States Constitution; (iv) the Mayflower Compact… the National Motto” and more.
The Oklahoma legislation, like the model bills it draws on, is a transparent effort to slip in overtly religious documents like the Ten Commandments and the Mayflower Compact, under cover of “history.” These documents, while important, are unrelated to the constitutional and legal history of the United States, although the suggestion is otherwise. This in turn is part of an effort on the part of the Christian Right activists behind Project Blitz, to promote a Christian nationalist interpretation of American history—a narrative, which seeks to link Christianity and national identity from the British colonies at Jamestown and Plymouth to the present.
The bill reads in part:
Every county, municipality, city, town, school or any other political subdivision is authorized to display, in its public buildings and on its grounds, replicas of historical documents including, but not limited to, the Ten Commandments, Magna Carta, Mayflower Compact, Declaration of Independence, United States Constitution, Bill of Rights, Oklahoma Constitution and other historically significant documents in the form of statues, monuments, memorials, tablets or any other display that respects the dignity and solemnity of such documents.
Critics say any such display of the Ten Commandments in this way, may also violate the Oklahoma state constitution. But whatever the fate of these bills, the Christian Right and the politicians who cater to it have a long game in mind, and most seem unaware of the game itself. But clearly, principled proponents of religious pluralism and separation of church and state need to be not only forewarned, but forearmed for the political battles to come.
Princeton historian Kevin M. Kruse, in his recent book, One Nation Under God: How Corporate American Invented Christian America, observed that In God We Trust gained prominence as part of a post-WWII campaign by corporate elites to rally the country to their version of free enterprise and against the New Deal. It replaced the national motto, E Pluribus Unum, (out of many, one) that had been in use since 1782 and which certainly spoke to the spirit of pluralism and unity intended by the founding generation.
Kruse warns that “we do violence to our past if we treat certain phrases—’one nation under God,’ ‘In God We Trust’—as sacred texts handed down from our nation’s founding. Instead, we are better served if we understand these utterances for what they are: political slogans that speak not to the origins of our nation but to a specific point in its not-so-distant past. If they are to mean anything to us now, we should understand what they meant then.”