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Regarding the dishonest “In God We Trust” initiative now steamrolling across America, it‘s yet another reason we shouldn’t trust evangelical Christian intentions in the public square.

In South Dakota, the state’s largest school district at Sioux Falls reportedly plans to not only “prominently display” posters with the religious phrase in all of its schools — as a new state law passed this year requires starting in 2020 — but also to emblazon the signs with government references, such as the U.S. and state flags, and a symbol representing the state and school district.

If this isn’t government “establishment” of religious preference, what is?

An editorial denunciation

The good news is that Sioux Falls metro daily, the Argus Leader, has pointedly denounced this move by its local school district, after also denouncing the state Legislature’s passage of the “In God We Trust” bill earlier this year.

The implications of the Legislature’s new “In God We Trust” statute are clear, the newspaper’s editorial board wrote in a formal editorial April 5:

“For those paying attention, it appears that Christianity is being thrust upon South Dakotans in a more state-sanctioned manner these days. … It’s reasonable to view this as an attempt to formalize Christianity as the state’s official religion in the eyes of those students, which violates the “establishment clause” of the First Amendment. That clause forbids government entities from establishing an official religion or elevating one religion over another, which means South Dakota’s state leaders have put their school districts on shaky constitutional grounds.”

Pro bono state legal aid

Underscoring the aggressiveness of this statute in enforcing on an entire school-age population an inherently religious assumption — the existence of God — the statute also directs the state’s attorney general to legally represent at no cost any district or school board being sued for displaying these signs.

This statute thus commands that South Dakotans will acknowledge and bow down to the Christian God, whether or not citizens believe in a different divinity or none at all.

Welcome to Christian arrogance and privilege in action.

The Argus Leader editorial infers that the state’s government is “bucking for a fight … perhaps mindful of a more conservative-leaning U.S. Supreme Court.” The editorial notes that six states passed “In God We Trust” in-school-display bills into law in 2018. Ten others, including South Dakota, have introduced or passed similar laws so far this year.

A stealth evangelical crusade

It’s not an organic, naturally occurring phenomenon. It’s a political movement by Christian evangelicals, unnerved by a broad slippage in U.S. devotion to the faith, to widely and aggressively insert more Christianity into American life. A 2015 Pew Research Center study reported that absolute belief in God among Americans had dropped sharply from 71 percent in 2007 to around 63 percent in 2014, and the importance of religion in people’s lives had also sagged appreciably. Other data indicates the downward trend is continuing.

A national effort titled “Project Blitz,” created by conservative Christian political groups, is behind this coordinated campaign “pushing model legislation and other evangelical-based directives on receptive state capitals, with an eye toward greater national influence,” the Argus Leader warned in its editorial. One of the Blitz groups — Capitol Commission — earlier this year distributed free Bibles to South Dakota legislators stamped with the state seal.

‘Ceremonial deism’?

The editorial pointed out that the state’s Legislature used as cover for the new law an earlier U.S. Supreme Court decision that ruled “In God We Trust” is “ceremonial deism … meaning they have become customary enough to be deemed non-religious” when used as the national motto and on U.S. currency.

Put aside for the moment that the original national motto coined by our Founding Fathers — E. pluribus unum (from many, one) — was only replaced with “In God We Trust” very recently in the history of the nation. See my previous post on this topic, “In God We Trust’ On U.S. Money Is Purely Political.”

The new motto was enacted by Congress in 1957 at the height of the “Red Scare,” as America was disquieted by the specter of aggressive Russian Communism. Congress also commanded that the phrase be inscribed on all U.S. paper money.

Just the first step

Warning of further evangelical encroachments in the public square, the editorial wrote:

“More disturbing is that conservative Christian groups pushing these bills view ‘In God We Trust’ as a preliminary step. Some states have moved to the next stage by seeking to pass ‘Bible literacy’ bills, which allow students in public high schools to study the Old and New Testaments,” an idea President Trump has endorsed as “great” in January.

The Argus Leader editorial also called out Gov. Noem’s recent proclamation of a Statewide Day of Prayer to support those affected by recent flooding in the region, suspecting that Thomas Jefferson would have been appalled if he had lived to see it.

Religious enforcement

The take-away from all this is that Project Blitz and the Capitol Commission are not trying to save souls but to enforce religion under the guise of “ceremonial deism,” which is like saying “ceremonial Christianity.”

There’s no such thing divorced from actual belief. It’s a camel’s nose in the tent.

But Sioux Falls School District Superintendent Brian Maher defended the district’s plan for the “God” posters, contending:

“I don’t think this has to be an exclusionary topic. Hopefully, we can make it as part of an inclusive topic in our schools.”

Except, of course, for non-monotheists, atheists and the religiously unaffiliated — the so-called “Nones” — who, by themselves, now make up a quarter of the U.S. population.


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Rick Snedeker

Rick Snedeker is a retired American journalist/editor who now writes in various media and pens nonfiction books. He has received nine past top South Dakota state awards for newspaper column, editorial,...