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Newdow is Back — So What

John on November 14, 2005 at 10:46 pm

pennyMichael Newdow, the atheist who tried unsuccessfully to have “under God” removed from the Pledge of Allegiance, is at it again. This time he’s determined to get “In God We Trust” off our money. My reaction is simple:

So what.

You may recall that after the risible ninth circuit ruled in his favor, pols on both sides of the aisle took to the capitol steps and recited the pledge in a spontaneous show of solidarity with…with what?

This is my first problem with “In God We Trust.” It’s nothing more than a thin patina of civic religion which covers our institutions. It confronts no one, challenges no one, everyone can be for it which means it’s pablum. It’s comforting perhaps, but as far as accomplishing the things Jesus cares about, it gets us nowhere. So why are we holding on to it?

Well, I think I understand its appeal to Christians. Jesus said “You can not serve both God and money” and so having “In God We Trust” on the money is the Christian equivalent of the warning label on a pack of cigarettes. I get that, I really do. I even like it. But let’s be honest. With all those millions of coins in circulation, how many people are actualy picking up a penny and deciding to turn their lives over to God? Perhaps none?

The second problem I have with this is that, as I see it, Newdow is right on the law. Having “under God” in the pledge is non-sectarian but it’s not neutral. The same with “In God We Trust.” It’s not neutral. So again, I ask, what are we holding on to here? Did Jesus indicate that having the word God on our money was an imporant part of his kingdom? If so I missed it. As I see it, God endorses the freedom of every human being to accept or reject him. Shouldn’t we err on the side of freedom in this?

I think what’s really going on is that Christians are responding not to the issue at hand but to Newdow himself. He says at every opportunity:

“People sometimes portray this as atheist versus theist,” Newdow said. “I’m not an atheist activist. I’m an establishment clause activist. I’m against treating people unequally.”

It’s a good line which no one believes for a second, a convenient fiction like the idea that Michael Moore makes documentaries. In fact, Newdow is the premiere atheist activist in the country right now and he knows it. And, like every atheist activist, he wants to stamp out religion root and branch. He is transparently a man motivated by a deep hatred of faith. And yet, the fact remains that he’s not asking to have theists shipped to Siberia (yet…). On the narrow issues to which he has devoted himself, he has the winning hand because theists do not have a divine right — nor any Biblical expectation — to have a supportive slogan printed on every piece of U.S. currency.

There’s an even bigger problem with this that goes way beyond Newdow. Fighting guys like him over things like “In God We Trust” suggests to everyone watching that Christians are just one more lobbying group. Over the last year we’ve seen numerous high profile liberals express their fear of a coming THEOCRACY (gasp!). This is laughable in the extreme, and yet, what are non-believers supposed to think when we hold on to things like “In God We Trust” with a white-knuckle death grip? It comes down to this: Do we want to influence people or to control things? A high profile fight against Newdow makes it seem the latter is our priority, which also serves his purpose and not ours.

Try this little thought experiment on for size. A group of Christian leaders: Pat Robertson, James Dobson, etc. send an amicus brief to the court siding with Newdow. I know the idea is making your head spin, but go with me here. Ask yourself “What do we lose?” Well, uh…we lose words stamped on metal. What’s that you say? Words actually stamped on metal? Surely not that! No, worse than that. We lose the lovely linen leaflets too. Ack! What a blow. My world is reeling. Have you heard? We’ve lost our critical advantage in the area of words stamped on metal AND printed on paper! How shall we then live? Ah, for the glorious days when vague theist platitudes embossed in alloy were ubiquitous.

Does anyone think Jesus gives a rip about this? Lord help us if we’ve come to that.

Now turn the coin over so to speak and ask yourself, “What might we gain?” I think we gain a lot. In fact I think it could lead to tens or hundreds of thousands of sincere reevaluations of Christianity in this country and abroad. Can you imagine the conversations that would take place? The shock? The face of Katie Couric as she tries to get the words out? What would people think? (Not church people. I mean regular people who haven’t been to church in a while.) Maybe, “Wow, these guys put aside their own interests and did what seemed fair.” Or maybe “Wow, these guys don’t seem that concerned about running the government after all, maybe I was wrong.” Or simply, “Who are these people?”

As for Newdow, in an instant he goes from atheist champion to confused spectator in his own cause. By giving him what he wants and then saying “So what?” maybe, just maybe, the grand unbeliever himself would secretly start to wonder…

“Who are these people?”

Update: The Supreme Court has refused to take a case which ruled that “In God We Trust” could remain over a courthouse entrance. Sounds like Newdow has a way to go.

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