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4 Ways Christianity Sneaks Into Our Secular Government -- And Why it Matters

What often gets called "ceremonial deism" is all over our government.

Photo Credit: JohnKwan/


"In God We Trust" on the money. "Under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance. Creches and crosses on public land. Religious mottos on public buildings. Prayers starting public government meetings. Prayers in the public schools. If you didn't know better, you'd think the religious right was right, and the United States really was a Christian nation.

Of course it's not. The United States is a secular nation. The principle that citizens have the right to reach their own conclusions about religion, and that government should stay out of that choice, is deeply enshrined in the foundation of our government, in the First Amendment and elsewhere. This separation of state and church was not accidental or an oversight -- it was written into the Constitution by careful, conscious choice, made against significant pushback. And the country has citizens who are Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, Wiccan, "spiritual but not religious," many other religions -- plus, of course, citizens without any religion at all.

Yet what often gets called "ceremonial deism" is all over our government. Now, when this "ceremonial deism" get challenged in court, it typically gets defended -- and is often even upheld by judges -- on the grounds that it isn't really religious. In court, its defenders argue that all this God talk is obviously just tradition, without any actual religious meaning. (How could you silly people think that "God" means something religious?) But when you look at the ideas and motivations driving this "ceremonial deism," it becomes clear that it's anything but secular. Passionate religious belief is driving every one of these battles. It wouldn't be defended so fiercely if real religious fervor weren't behind it. And every one of these "ceremonial" incursions of religion into government gets used -- on the ground, in tangible, real-world ways -- to marginalize non-believers, and to treat them as second-class citizens.

Here are four ways the concept of God gets into government -- and pushes atheist citizens to the sidelines.

1: "In God We Trust" on the money. You probably already heard about Florida Senator Marco Rubio's speech at the Republican National Convention. The one where he said:

Our national motto is "In God We Trust," reminding us that faith in our Creator is the most important American value of all.

Faith in our creator. The most important American value of all.

Is there any way to read that other than as a deliberate slap at atheists? Is there any way to read this other than, "If you don't believe in God, you're not a good American"?

Rubio's speech was far from an outlier. The fact that the national motto is "In God We Trust" -- and the fact that this motto is on the money -- gets used against atheists all the time. And it typically gets used in a very circular-reasoning, catch-22 way. We're told that America is a Christian nation... and the national motto proves it. And our demands that the motto be changed are decried... on the grounds that this is a Christian nation. The motto itself is used as evidence for why it should be the motto.

And if atheists do spend money with "In God We Trust" on it? We get called hypocrites for doing so. This sentiment shows up all over the place, from Internet forums to news story comment threads to Fox News. As just one example among so very many: When high school atheist Jessica Ahlquist protested her public school having a prayer banner in the auditorium, a woman in her town called her an "idiot," saying, "If you don't believe in that, take all the money out of your pocket, because every dollar bill says, 'In God We Trust.'"

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