Posted by: Harold Knight | 11/02/2011

Continuing my research: offending both religious and atheist friends. “In God We Trust” as dangerous coercion

Soul liberty

Soul liberty

Growing up in the Baptist Church, I knew about “soul liberty.” I associate the term with my father’s sister, a Southern Baptist preacher’s wife. “Soul liberty” was a pillar of her faith as a Southern Baptist. My father (a not-Southern Baptist preacher) explained to me the connection between “soul liberty” and “separation of church and state.”

I doubt anyone reading here is opposed to the “separation of church and state.” It’s possible some advocate of theocracy has inadvertently found me in a web search using some bizarre search term. My current favorite is “michelle obama is akhenaten mother.” For years I thought Zechariah  Sitchin topped the worldwide list of purveyors of nuttiness, but now Freeman, who believes Barak Obama is the clone of the Pharaoh Akhenaten, has taken his place.

Back to “soul liberty.” When I hear “God Bless America,” I cringe. Literally. I have a physical reaction to the ugliness of the tune. But more important, the song is near—if not at—the top of the musical canon for the shaping of American propaganda. I will not, if I can help it, listen to it (switch TV channels or stick fingers in ears). I will not sing it. Ever.

The concept of “Soul Liberty” espoused by my Southern Baptist aunt in the ‘50s, gives Sitchin, Freeman, and me the right to espouse any belief we desire.

For a soul at liberty, I surely hear an over-abundance of official government God-talk. It’s obvious we no longer believe we are “created equal, that [we] are endowed by [our] Creator with certain unalienable Rights.” The nucleotide of our national DNA is not “God,” but “Creator.” My father and his sister believed Americans are free to believe the “Creator” is the God of Abraham and Sarah, or the God of Jesus, or Shiva, or Akhenaten, or Natural Selection—whatever anyone wants to believe. My father preached it from the pulpit.

My aunt possessed a natural performance fluidity and ease at the piano I can’t imagine. I heard her play “How Great Thou Art” and “Amazing Grace” and even—on rare occasions—show tunes. I never heard her play “God Bless America.” I never heard my father sing it. They thought it demeaning to their faith. “Soul liberty” to them meant freedom from any kind of coercion, either religion coercing the government or the government—“religious correctness”—coercing their faith. In any way. Including the singing of “God Bless America.”

These Baptists came by their belief in “soul freedom” honestly. They considered themselves spiritual heirs of Roger Williams (1603-1683), the great Baptist founder of Rhode Island. Williams famously argued that “forced worship stinks in God’s nostrils” (1).

Williams maintained that

“soul liberty”—is a human right precisely because it is a God-given right, no less than the right of a human to breathe. More broadly, Williams promoted the separation of church and state for religious reasons—to protect religion from contamination and corruption. . . Williams maintained that “government must have nothing to do with religion lest in its clumsy desire to favor the churches or its savage effort to injure religion it bring the corruptions of the wilderness into the holiness of the garden” (2).

My Southern Baptist aunt and her American Baptist preacher brother, my father, believed their church should keep their hands off the government, but, more importantly, the government should keep its (our collective) hands off their church. To these absolutely committed Christians, “God Bless America” was a dangerous idea.

“God Bless America” is really, of course—except for its powerful propaganda value—innocuous. It’s such a dumb tune and the words are so sentimentally chauvinistic that anyone who thinks about it seriously will reject it. And it has, of course, no official standing. But the background idea, equally insidious and destructive of “soul liberty” has been, since 1956, given official standing.

Yesterday, with only nine (9!) nay votes, the House of Representatives passed House Concurring Resolution 13a saying the House of Representatives (the Senate concurring)

reaffirms “In God We Trust” as the official motto of the United States and supports and encourages the public display of the national motto in all public buildings, public schools, and other government institutions(3).

Soul liberty

Soul liberty

“Reaffirms.” So Congress is committed to using God to further the aims of American politics. Or is it using American politics to further the aims of God. It’s hard to tell.

However one reads it, the resolution is coercion. Roger Williams is horrified.

I am deeply, profoundly disturbed by this establishment of religion in the United States. I’m not a commie-pinko liberal hoping to remove religion from the polity of the United States.

I have no friends who admit to active, toilsome, harrowing agnosticism. Everyone I know is either committed to some idea of “god” or doggedly determined “god” does not exist. My petty judgment is they are simply afraid of the harrowing experience of holding in abeyance commitment to either belief, beliefs based absolutely in that which human beings cannot know. (Don’t give me a lesson in the meaning of “faith;” I’ve read Hebrews 11.)

“In God We Trust” does not apply to me.

If I, one person, the tiniest minority that can be, do not trust in God, then stating that the official motto of my nation is “In God We Trust” comprises the tyranny of the majority. It is the institutionalization of forces designed to negate “soul liberty.” It is not my motto. I feel intellectually and spiritually raped. Forced to countenance an idea I find impossible to accept (today, that is; I remain agnostic). If we believe in unalienable rights, why coerce each other to sing “God Bless America?” We do it

for the same reasons that the words “under God” were added to the Pledge of Allegiance in 1954, and that the words “In God We Trust” replaced “E Pluribus, Unum” as the national motto in 1956. During the “Red Scare”. . . the practice of religion at all was seen as a key distinguishing factor between the United States and its “godless” communist adversaries. . .  United States became a nation under God—because the socialist republics of the Soviet Union were not (4).

My “soul liberty” is not a pawn in the political power game of the United States now any more than it was in 1956. It was a pawn in the political power game of the Puritans in 1620. Roger Williams felt its power. Using the Mayflower Compact as evidence that the US has always been an “In-God-We-Trust” nation is illogical at best (see note * below).

Soul liberty

Soul liberty

Perhaps I wouldn’t be in therapy for depression if I could say with the devotees of our national civil religion that “In God I Trust” and I hope “God [will] Bless America.”

Until Americans understand that

one of the central aims of democratic constitutionalism is “to solve the problem of enduring disagreement—by promoting exposure to multiple perspectives” . . . [and the] goal of any constitutional democracy that respects freedom is. . . to render it “unnecessary for people to agree when agreement is not possible” (5)

my “soul liberty” will be in jeopardy. Oh, and yours, too, by the way.
(1) Quoted in: Conkle, Daniel O. “Religious Truth, Pluralism, and Secularization: The Shaking Foundations of American Religious Liberty.” Cardozo Law Review 32.5 (2011): 1755-1780.
(2) Conkle, idem. Quoting: Howe, Mark Dewolfe. The Garden And The Wilderness: Religion And Government In American Constitutional History (1965).
(3) “H.Con.Res. 13.” Legislative Digest. November 1, 2011. Web. 1 Nov. 2011.

(4) Meizel, Katherine. “A Singing Citizenry: Popular Music and Civil Religion in America.” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 45.4 (2006): 497-503.
(5) Dowdell, Coby. “The American Hermit and the British Castaway.” Early American Literature 46.1 (2011): 121-156.  Quoting: Sunstein, Cass R. Designing Democracy: What Constitutions Do. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2001.
*  When referring to the religious beginnings of America, one of the most frequently referenced documents is the Mayflower Compact of 1620 and its invocation of divine favor on the new settlers. But when praising the Puritans’ combination of faith in God and the laws of the land, those who praise the Mayflower Compact do not typically acknowledge the legal system that was actually implemented by the Puritans. The 1648 “Lauues and Libertyes” of Massachusetts, adopted the punishment of banishment for Jesuits or for anyone who criticized infant baptism. If a Jesuit were to return after having once been banished, “he shall be put to death.” Execution was also the punishment for anyone who “shall HAVE OR WORSHIP any other God, but the LORD GOD.” Other capital offenses included being a witch, a blasphemer, or a child who cursed his parents. Between 1648 and 1688, five women in the Boston area were executed for practicing witchcraft, and sixteen more practitioners of witchcraft were hanged in the Salem Common in 1692. Mary Dyer, a Quaker, was hanged on Boston Common in 1660 for heresy after refusing to stop preaching that human beings may have a direct relationship with God without intervention of the clergy and that infant baptism was wrong.  (Gunn, T. Jeremy. “Religious Freedom and Laïcité: A Comparison of the United States and France.” Brigham Young University Law Review 2004.2 (2004): 419-506.)


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