A letter to Wentzville Missouri

Mayor Guccione and members of the Board of Aldermen:
Thank you for hosting an open forum, however contentious, on the national motto on Wednesday, February 28.

In the calm after the storm, with the necessary leisure for reflection and Googling, I must correct at least a few of the many factual misstatements made at the meeting.

1. No, the Supreme Court has never approved or disapproved the motto (both sides often get this wrong).  It has never addressed the issue.  All the relevant rulings are from the lower courts, most notably Aronow v. United States (1970).  Most subsequent rulings cite Aronow, directly or indirectly.  The Supreme Court has consistently declined to review these rulings.

In Aronow, the Ninth Circuit decreed by judicial fiat, unsupported by logic or evidence, that “the motto has no theological or ritualistic impact,” even though the motto is explicitly theological on its face, and its usage is entirely ritualistic.  The Court had to adopt this premise in order to exempt the motto from First Amendment scrutiny.

The Supreme Court case most commonly cited in this connection is Lynch v. Donnelly (1984), in which Justice Brennan made the first use in a Supreme Court opinion of the term “ceremonial deism.”  He gave as examples not only the motto but also the “under God” clause of the Pledge of Allegiance.  However Brennan was writing in dissent.  He was on the losing side.  In any case neither the motto nor the Pledge were at issue, and his remarks about them could be only non-binding dicta, not holdings.

2. No, the Congress did not print Bibles for schoolchildren.  This story is a false narrative widely circulated by the religious right.

What happened was that Robert Aitken, a printer in Philadelphia, had been pestering the Congress to buy the Bibles he had printed.  They declined. However in 1781 they passed a resolution commending his product for its relative lack of typos.  This resolution had the secular purpose of promoting the American printing industry, which up to that point had largely confined itself to newspapers and pamphlets.  A Bible was a more ambitious piece of work.

Aitken continued to petition the Congress to buy his Bibles, with no success.  Without government patronage his Bibles didn’t sell well, and he lost money on the venture.

3. No, you don’t have to end an oath with “so help me God.”  A new police officer was sworn in before the open forum, and three others two weeks prior.  None said anything about “so help me God.”  All of you were sworn in to your own positions as well.  While you had the option of adding “so help me God,” it was not required, and cannot be required under Article VI of the Constitution.

(You also don’t have to place your hand on a Bible, or on any book at all.)

4. No, there is no basis beyond bigotry to say that atheists are selfish, unloving, or uncharitable, as claimed by (surprise!) a Christian pastor at the forum.

I’ve known a lot of atheists and a lot of believers.  They have pretty much the same mix of vices and virtues.  The main difference is that atheists can’t claim God’s authority for their prejudices, nor his forgiveness for their transgressions.

You may have read claims that atheist are behind believers when it comes to charitable giving.  Keep in mind, though:

  • Atheists aren’t as numerous as believers, nor as organized as the churches.
  • When atheists give, they usually give as individuals, not as members of any recognizable religious group.
  • Some charities refuse to accept donations from known atheists.
  • Contributions to churches are counted as charitable, but churches mostly provide services to their own members.  Giving to your own church is about as altruistic as paying your monthly gym fee at Planet Fitness.

In part to counter this misperception, the Foundation Beyond Belief was founded in 2010 to help secular humanists channel their charitable contributions and volunteer efforts in ways that are consistent with their values.  They provide funding for:

  • Grants to established and carefully vetted charities;
  • Disaster recovery teams to respond to major disasters such as Hurricane Harvey;
  • A Peace Corps-like program of volunteer efforts to stem human rights abuses, currently focusing on the Northern Region of Ghana;
  • A network to coordinate volunteer efforts in local communities.

Closer to home: one of the speakers at the forum, David Holland, has spent a lot of time distributing food and supplies to the homeless.  He had to sit and watch his efforts be publicly demeaned and denied.

I suspect that the pastor who slandered the character of atheists has not knowingly met many of them.  He almost certainly spends most of his time among other believers, and gets his ideas about atheists from Christian media like God’s Not Dead.  Many atheists are reluctant to out themselves, especially to someone as bigoted and censorious as the gentleman in question.
I won’t belabor the point further.  As I have seen elsewhere, defenders of the motto relied on so many demonstrable falsehoods that I couldn’t keep track of them all.
The biggest falsehood of all is the pretense that the motto has no religious content.  Nobody ever makes this claim except to brush aside the Establishment Clause.  The religious nature of the motto is otherwise so blatantly obvious as to need no demonstration.  It is precisely because of its religious content that its defenders defend it, and its opponents oppose it, as we saw in City Hall the other night.
Finally: what have you accomplished by brandishing this motto on your dais?  Does it help you make better decisions, even though you can’t see it from where you sit?  Does it fight crime?  Does it balance the budget?  Will it ever fill a singe pothole?
Of course not.  That’s not what it’s for.  What it’s for is to let the baying religious majority mark its territory like a dog pissing on a fire hydrant.  What it’s for is to warn a religious minority that it is not welcome in Wentzville, nor even safe (you have already dispatched armed government agents, authorized to use deadly force, to patrol your neighborhoods and display the same religious slogan).  There is no other purpose, and can be none.
You have roused the city of Wentzville to portray itself on the national stage as a howling, vengeful mob of Christian zealots.  This accomplishment may advance your own political careers, but it ill-serves your community.
Your own open forum has proven the motto to be indefensible.

Scott McKellar

Scott McKellar is a software developer and keyboard warrior in the St. Louis area.