In God We Trust: The View From Southern Missouri

The following is a by Craig McDonald

Greetings from the buckle of the bible-belt!  Springfield MO is the third largest city in the Show Me state, boasting more than 160,000 people. We are sometimes known as the Queen City of the Ozarks, and occasionally as the Birthplace of Route 66, but of late I have been wrestling with finding a more updated nickname for our fair city.  With the recent overreach of our City Council into areas where they have no business, I have considered calling the town America’s Nipple.  But as I contemplated the many atrocities that have befallen my city, I realized that I would have to look further back than one councilman’s attempt to use his association with the James River Assembly of God to legislate morality and decency in this not-so-small town.

I recalled the SOGI repeal movement, when citizens of Springfield were fed fear and lies in a (sadly successful) attempt to once again permit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.  Curiously, the same James River Assembly of God intervened in the political process, with their pastor openly telling his parishioners how to vote on the issue (while maintaining their comfortable tax-exempt status, of course), insisting that transsexual women were going to lurk in the women’s bathrooms to glimpse their daughters and wives with their pants down.  Against all sense, that ploy worked and the SOGI repeal was successful.  To that end, I considered the name “Religious Indoctrination-Susceptible Transphobic Homophobic Gullible Bigoted Ruby of the Ozarks.”  That seemed a bit too long for a license plate (or even a bumper sticker), so I was forced to discard it, as well.

Contemplating the many vagaries that we have suffered in this city, I was forced to realize that there was in fact a specific point at which the city I have come to know and love jumped off the path of reason and fully embraced the inanities of religious indoctrination and theocracy.  That point was in 2014, when James Arnott decided that he would buck the quaint tradition of maintaining separation between church and state by emblazoning all of our sheriff’s patrol cars with the relatively new and highly controversial national motto, “,” kicking off a movement from other law enforcement offices in at least seven states following suit.  To date, 80 separate police forces and sheriff’s offices have hopped onto the IGWT train, with no signs of slowing down.

A Greene County Sheriff's Vehicle
A Greene County Sheriff’s Vehicle

 

When I first learned about this egregious violation of the establishment clause I was, understandably, somewhat miffed that the sheriff (whose salary is paid with MY tax dollars) would so cavalierly toss aside any sense of reconciliation or cooperation by slapping a wholly divisive and controversial motto on Sheriff vehicles throughout the county.  I reached out to him in an attempt to find a common ground—perhaps he would see reason if I simply explained that his actions were illegal; surely the highest ranking law officer in the county understands both the letter and spirit of the First Amendment?  Sadly, I was wrong on both counts.

Reaching out to him, I was careful to avoid personal attacks, and linked to the official code of conduct for the Greene County Sheriff’s office, specifically page 44 which refers to unbecoming conduct.

“Unbecoming conduct is behavior unbecoming an officer or employee of the GCSO, either on or off duty. Conduct not specifically mentioned here but tending to bring discredit to you or the Greene County Sheriff’s Office may also be just cause for disciplinary action (1) Failure to obey laws-Do not fail to obey municipal ordinances, Missouri, or Federal Laws.  Do not induce, or try to induce any other person to commit an unlawful act.”

I explained to him that violating the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause, and inducing all of his deputies to do the same by directly supporting one deity over any others qualified as both a failure to obey  the law AND inducing other officers to do the same.

His response was baffling and disturbing.  He insisted that, because the motto appears on our money, the Greene County Seal, and the Greene County Sheriff Office badges (only the first of which is actually true), that it was somehow no longer a violation of the .  Ultimately, Sheriff Arnott is using his elected office to push his own personal religious agenda because “everybody else is doing it.”  Now, as a parent, I understand completely the logical fallacy involved in peer pressure and groupthink.  I have had to explain to my young sons (many times) that “going with the flow” is only a safe position to take when the water isn’t flowing towards a cliff.  Sheriff Arnott seems to be an intelligent person, who should really know better than to expand on a bad tradition simply because others have done it in the past.  If we based our laws on tradition, we would still be slave-owning subjects of Great Britain.  Laws are written based on an understanding of the needs and desires of the people, with an eye to their constitutionality.  The Constitution was written specifically to protect the minority from the tyranny of the majority opinion.

It is almost certainly true that the city of Springfield has a high percentage of god-believing Christians living here.  However, they do not constitute the entirety of our population.  In fact, a 2010 poll from City-Data.com shows that as many as 47% of the overall population of this city identify as “none” when asked for their religion (now, I am fully aware that this does not mean that 47% of the city are atheists, but it is statistically interesting). The sheriff’s blatant disregard for such a significant segment of his constituency is perhaps the most disturbing part of this entire sordid story. When asked what an officer in his department should do if they objected to the stickers, he responded that they would “have to find somewhere else to work if it bothered them so bad.”

So it is that after much deliberation and deep thought, I have settled on the new nickname for my once-fair city:  “PATIENT ZERO.” We are the original site of the infection that has spread so far and so wide. We are the harbingers of the disease of theocracy that threatens to destroy our secular democracy.  We are the bringers of death to the august document known as the Constitution of the United States of America. The infection is spreading at a fast pace—it has already consumed cities in Arkansas, Texas, Mississippi, Illinois, Ohio, Florida and Georgia and it will soon grow beyond the southern states. Thankfully, all is not lost yet.  There are still antibodies in this country who will not quietly accept the encroachment of divisive religion into our government. We at the Original Motto Project represent the white blood cells seeking to drive out this infection.  Each of us, as American citizens has a choice:  do we want to allow the virus to grow stronger, or do we stand our ground and fight it with our last ounce of strength?  Do we stand idly by as another of our supposedly inalienable rights is swept out of reach, or do we force the theocrats to pluck our rights from our cold, dead fingers?

This virus has run its course for too long unchecked. I am an antibody. Come and fight with me.

 

 

About Craig: Craig McDonald is an author and advocate for liberal values living in Springfield, Missouri.  He is technically less than a year away from his bachelor’s degree in English Literature with a Linguistics minor (although he has been on a sabbatical from school for almost a decade)  He published his first novel, KINDRED, in ebook format in 2014 (and is furiously working on the sequel—and 7 other novels in his increasingly sparse spare time).  He has been a staunch supporter of LGBT rights, civil rights and every other kind of human rights.  He has been outspoken in opposition of rape culture, gun culture, and victim-blaming of all stripes.  Since childhood, he has been deeply concerned with the separation of church and state, and has spoken out against public religious displays (e.g. the 10 Commandments) and the labeling of government property with the divisive motto, “In God We Trust.” 

Photo Credit: Springfield News-Leader / Valerie Mosley/News-Leader

Thomas Essel

Thomas Essel is an outspoken secular activist and serves as Assistant Director for The Original Motto Project. Thomas also writes for the Patheos Atheist blog Danthropology and his work has appeared in the Springfield News-Leader. You can contact Thomas at: Thomas@originalmotto.us