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Over God we fuss

Oklahoma’s never-ending preposterousness

The snark is the easy part.


Part One

The measure, which was authored by Sen. Wayne Shaw, would require school superintendents and officials of state agencies to place a poster of “In God We Trust” in school classrooms and public buildings that are maintained or operated using state funds.1

Cue the bald eagle slowly yet proudly ascending skyward.

In addition to the phrase, the poster would also include an accurate representation of the American flag and the Oklahoma state flag.

This beauty passed the Oklahoma Senate Committee on General Government (yes, we have such a thing) on February 20. From there, it goes to the full Senate for consideration and almost certain passage.

It’s faith and patriotism by poster.

There’s more.

There’s less.

The measure states that it would only be implemented if funds are available. It adds that the posters “shall be purchased solely with funds made available through voluntary contributions to local schools or local school boards.”

What does that even mean? The posters would be required, but state funds couldn’t be used to pay for them, even if those funds are available—which they’re not. There aren’t funds for five-day school weeks in some places, but they’ll find the money to create placards pronouncing love for God for every classroom in every public school in the state? Seems workable. And what could be a better use of time for school administrators than to have to schnorr for contributions for such a mandated sop. Maybe they can promise branding in return: “This IN GOD WE TRUST poster provided by your pious friends at Devon Energy.”

Historically, America has lurched from sanity to hysteria and back again. “In God We Trust” was first passed by Congress in 1864, for use on the two-cent coin, as a way to bind America to a caring and loving God during the Civil War. This seemed like a good way to thank Him (or Her).

Some 40-odd-years later, Teddy Roosevelt dismissed such drivel.

By the turn of the century, however, the war’s memory had faded; President Teddy Roosevelt considered the mingling of God and Mammon to be vulgar, and he ordered the phrase removed from newly designed gold coins in 1907.2

Approximately 50 years after, there was backlash against the backlash.

A public outcry forced Congress to backtrack. By the mid-1950s, the concern with piety in Washington had apparently deepened; in 1955 Congress ordered the same phrase to appear on all paper currency.

Then there was backlash against the backlash against the backlash, but that opposition petered out, because as Supreme Court Justice William J. Brennan Jr. wrote in 1983—at least in the case of “In God We Trust” on the paper money and coins—the slogan had “lost any true religious significance.”

Garrett Epps, University of Baltimore professor of law, writer, and Supreme Court correspondent for The Atlantic, says “In God We Trust” was only made the nation’s official motto in 1956 by President Eisenhower and only because Ike wanted to make a distinction between God-fearing Americans and the soulless Soviets—not, Epps believes, one of the president’s better decisions

Key word: motto.

In determining constitutionality, Epps says courts will consider whether the legislation has 1) secular purpose, 2) primary effect that neither advances nor inhibits religion, and 3) no excessive entanglement between church and state.

“Of course the measure has no secular purpose and advances religion,” he says. “What are kids going to see when they look up every day?

Judges will issue writs, he says, describing such measures as “incredibly stupid” and may, in fact, want to know from those who champion such legislation, “How much of the taxpayers’ god-damned money do you plan to spend on defending this law?”

Nevertheless, there are (and were) those in Oklahoma and elsewhere, those who traffic in the cheap and the hackneyed who think the phrase “In God We Trust” is endowed with some magical, historical power, which, if only summoned, worshipped, and allowed to be displayed proudly in our shared public space, will cure the ills of a hurting land and return us to a time when—wait for it—we were great.

Part Two

Each day that the Oklahoma House and Senate are in session, the Chaplain of the Day, as he or she (and the program) is called, begins with a prayer. Oklahoma, according to Pew Research, is the eighth most religious state in America, and you don’t get to such an exalted ranking by accident. (Sharia Law bans, Ten Commandments monuments, anyone?3)

But here’s where it gets hinky.

That opening invocation was heretofore given by any member of clergy, irrespective of connection with actual representatives. But that was recently changed by Rep. Chuck Strohm (R-Tulsa County), who coordinates the Chaplain of the Day program and who also puts the wing in wing-nut. (He once authored legislation calling on the state to ignore U.S. Supreme Court decisions it didn’t like.4) His new rule stipulates that the Chaplain of the Day must be a clergy member from a sitting representative’s congregation. Sounds innocuous enough until you realize there are precisely no legislators at present who are Jewish or—summon the Müezzin—Muslim.

Only a cynic would think this has to do with that last part.

Call me a Jew.

I’m confident this is not about keeping rabbis off the Senate and House floors, but I’ll make you the Toby Ziegler bet—“All the money in my pockets against all the money in your pockets”—this has almost everything to do with keeping Muslim leaders out of the chamber.

And how do I know that?

Months back, Strohm refused to allow Imam Imad Enchassi to address the chamber, even after Rep. Jason Dunnington (D-Oklahoma City) invited him to do so. Enchassi then applied himself, and Strohm rejected that overture, too.

I called Sheryl Siddiqui, chairperson, Islamic Council of Oklahoma, and asked for her take on this.

“It boggles the mind that someone who ran for office by soliciting citizen support now spends his time sabotaging so many of those voters. Instead of addressing the needs of educators, the Department of Corrections, the elderly and disabled served by the Health Department and DHS, he has decided to marginalize and alienate tens of thousands of tax-paying citizens [with] spiritual paths different from his own.”

Rabbi Emeritus Charles P. Sherman, D.D., of Temple Israel (full disclosure: my rabbi for 30 years and a dear friend), agrees.

“There’s no reason to restrict prayer. You should allow members of any faith community to pray,” he said.

Admittedly, Sherman says this change in procedure, like the bill mandating “In God We Trust,” is a “minor annoyance” and an inefficiency.

“This is a waste of energy and another example of shifting the focus. They are elected to make the tough decisions; so, make them.”

There’s something else at work.

“When someone prays in a public setting in the name of Jesus,” Sherman said, “it excludes people who don’t believe in Jesus. And prayer should be inclusive.”

Which brings us to remarks of Pastor Bill Ledbetter, pastor of Fairview Baptist Church in Durant, who addressed senators on March 1 at the invitation of Sen. Josh Brecheen (R-Coalgate).

Feb. 14 (a young man) went into a school and killed 17 of our people, our kids. What is going on? What is going on? I’m asking the question. Do we really believe that we can create immorality in our laws? Do we really believe that we can redefine marriage from the word of God to something in our own mind and there not be a response? Do we really believe we can tell God to get lost from our schools and our halls of legislation and there be no response? Do we really believe that?5

As we’ve said many times in these parts, we’re not all Christian—nor want to be.

Before we end today’s episode, let’s return to the “In God We Trust” legislation and head to Florida, where an almost identical piece of dreck is being discussed. During the debate, its sponsor, Kimberly Daniels, a Jacksonville Democrat, who runs her own ministry—imagine that?—said, “It is not a secret that we have some gun issues that need to be addressed, but the real thing that needs to be addressed are issues of the heart.”6

Is that right?

What makes this not just annoying, but insulting, is that while this fatuousness was being passed 97–10, the Florida legislature rejected a motion, just a day before, to even discuss an assault weapons ban.7 There were survivors of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in the gallery when that bill was defeated. They did get to witness, though, the Florida House passing a motion that called for “education, prevention, research, and policy change to protect the citizens of this state” … from pornography.8

The students are now protected from tattooed lesbians on the internet but not from AR-15s that could rip their spleens and small intestines into shreds in the classroom.

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