Virginia Del. Robert G. Marshall's call for public schools to display the motto "In God We Trust" is exactly the kind of empty religiosity that Jesus consistently criticized in the Pharisees. Marshall introduced his idea with the dismissive question: "Who can object?" Jesus would object, that's for sure. The Pharisees were the moral leaders and the religious conservatives of Jesus' day. The sins of the Pharisees were smug self-righteousness and a hunger for political power. Sound familiar? If not, it will. Just look at the recent events: a hotly contested election decided by a right-leaning Supreme Court is followed by an inauguration that attracted 15,000 protesters and that was kicked off with a pretentious, lengthy and sectarian prayer requesting much-needed guidance for George. The chief justice serving on the court that selected George is openly hostile to the separation of church and state; we have an attorney general who believes that "America's only King is Jesus." Welcome to Gilead, the nightmare world of Margaret Atwood's "The Handmaid's Tale" where religious tyranny reigns and fertile women are forced to bear children for the Church-State. But that's just science fiction, isn't it? Freedom of conscience is clearly not part of the Republican program but apparently coercion is. And you can be sure that Gov. Jim Gilmore's new position as head of the Republican National Committee will bring plenty of state-sponsored religiosity to the Old Dominion whether we like it or not. What Marshall hopes to accomplish is unclear, but if he truly believes that religious sloganeering solves social problems, he's probably not smart enough for public office. Do we really need this McCarthy-era slogan? Does God really need government support? If Marshall really wanted to serve Virginia he'd raise teacher pay or stop the importation of out-of-state garbage. Instead, we get empty religious grandstanding that comforts some but does little to solve genuine problems. With all the recent hoopla about "faith-based" solutions to social problems, it seems we've forgotten the lessons of history. The Crusades, the Inquisition and the witch burnings may be the most notorious "faith-based" solutions to perceived problems, but they are certainly not the only ones. History is drenched in the blood shed by misguided faith. Of course it's a bit of a jump to go from a state-sponsored religious motto to religious terrorism, but a look at the Holy Land makes it easier to imagine. A complex web of problems, the carnage in that land is partly caused by obsessive attachment to exclusive religious dogmas, places and practices. The Holy Land is smothered in religious mottoes, and awash in blood. Where have religious mottoes promoted peace and harmony? Jerusalem, the "city of peace" has had so little peace precisely because of the political manipulation of religious devotion. Perhaps we should learn from this. If the possibility of a real Gilead still seems remote, look into what the Taliban is doing to women in Afghanistan. Torture, rape and murder are regularly excused in the name of God. The religious right can whine about "religious bigotry," but if there is a prejudice against religious fanaticism, it is not unfounded. There is no problem with a healthy spirituality that seeks to meet human need it's the zealots who want to be in command we need to watch out for. It is ironic that religious fundamentalists complain about bigotry it has been the nature and practice of fanatic religions for millennia: bigotry against women, bigotry against other races, bigotry against homosexuals, bigotry against other religions or anyone who doesn't "believe." Fanatical religion is inherently bigoted because it insists "our God is the only God, our way, the only way." America, originally meant to be a haven from religious intolerance, began with the Puritans persecuting the Quakers, so we've been getting it wrong from the beginning. Sure, mandatory display of religious slogans isn't the same as religious persecution, but it does help create a climate where persecution can flourish. Mr. Marshall, what about Virginians who do not believe in God, or what about those of us who believe in the separation of church and state? We can object, and we will. Ultimately, the motto itself is a lie. Neither the commonwealth, nor the nation "trusts" in God. We trust in Star Wars, money, power or prestige, but not in God. State religious mandates only cheapen religion and compromise genuine spirituality. Religious sloganeering does not enhance the legitimacy of the state or the church. State-sponsored religion actually betrays a deep insecurity by insisting on official enshrinement of a dogma that cannot survive on its own. I think Benjamin Franklin had it right when he said: "When a religion is good, I conceive it will support itself; and when it does not support itself, and God does not take care to support it so that its professors are not obliged to call for help of the civil power, 'tis a sign, I apprehend, of its being a bad one." Jefferson concurs in his "Notes on the State of Virginia": "It is error alone which needs the support of government. Truth can stand by itself." Jefferson wrote the Virginia Statute of Religious Liberty and was proud of the legislature "who had the courage to declare that the reason of man may be trusted with the formation of his own opinions." Perhaps Del. Marshall has never read Jefferson; perhaps our legislature lacks this courage. Our Founding Fathers were not the theocracy advocates the religious right would have us believe. We're not in Gilead yet, but the possibility exists. The religious right has made huge strides in strength and PR finesse over the past 20 years. We would be wise to wake up from our sleep of denial. If slogans are what we need, what about "know thyself" or "read books" or "think for yourself"? Is there something about these mottoes that frightens folks like Del. Marshall? S Lee Carleton is a free-lance writer who also teaches English at VCU. Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.
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