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Saturday, January 15, 2011


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Recently there some controversy on President Obama quoting our "national motto." But which one?

What you have here is the clash of two traditions, zeitgeists or worldviews depending on which word one prefers. Much of the heated nature of contemporary American political debate derives from the clash of fundamental philosophical differences between the adherents of a more traditional Judeo-Christian world view (or Theism) and the more Enlightenment based Secular Humanistic view. The two mottos represent two different intellectual and philosophic movements. One is theistic or God-centered and the other is humanistic or human-centered.

Is there an unwritten constitution (meaning accepted traditions and customs) or is there only positive law as embodied in statues and judicial decisions? Do rights originate with the government or are they inherent or God-given?
It is the same clash of worldviews that says the rights of man are “life, liberty and property” (Locke’s formulation quoted in the U.S. Constitution) and “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” (Jefferson’s formulation in the Declaration which is NOT part of the U.S. Constitution but could be said to be a part of America’s unwritten Constitution or tradition of freedom).

It is the same clash of worldviews that alleges that the Mojave Cross or the Pledge of Allegiance ought to be challenged as unconstitutional and in violation of the First Amendment–because they favor “religion”- and tomorrow that only a certain nomenclature is politically acceptable and traditional language as simple as “mankind” (instead of humankind) is worse than obsolete but representative of an invalid and bigoted worldview.

It is the same clash of worldviews that says by definition and tradition marriage is the legal union of a man and woman as husband and wife and the liberal relativistic viewpoint that marriage is what we construct or make up according to our legislature or even one judge totally disregarding popular sovereignty AND long established tradition.

There is no question that IN GOD WE TRUST is by law the national motto of the United States. Prior to 1956 it had been on US coins since 1864 and of course is part of our national anthem. It has only been on all US coins since 1955 (adopted by the unanimous vote of Congress). The national anthem was not the national anthem until 1931. It was the US Army anthem; it became popular when it was played before every major league baseball game during the 1917-1918 seasons in honor of the Doughboys. “In God we Trust” ultimately comes from Francis Scott Key’s poem and represents our Judeo-Christian heritage, specifically, I believe, the heritage of the Great Awakening which was a popular religious movement in the 18th century inspired primarily by the open air sermons of English preacher George Whitefield. Whitefield’s emotional rhetoric had a great influence on Patrick Henry who heard him speak as a child in company of his mother who became an adherent to Whitefield’s “New Light” Christianity. Benjamin Franklin, who published Whitefield’s sermons, said during the Constitutional Convention:

"I've lived, Sir, a long time, and the longer I live, the more convincing Proofs I see of this Truth — That God governs in the Affairs of Men. And if a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without his Notice, is it probable that an Empire can rise without his Aid? We have been assured, Sir, in the Sacred Writings, that except the Lord build the House they labor in vain who build it. I firmly believe this, — and I also believe that without his concurring Aid, we shall succeed in this political Building no better than the Builders of Babel: We shall be divided by our little partial local interests; our Projects will be confounded, and we ourselves shall become a Reproach and Bye word down to future Ages."

When Franklin spoke like this –alluding to the 127th Psalm- he was appeasing the theistic viewpoint of many of the Founding Fathers, their wives and their supporters that is to say those influenced by the Great Awakening. But Franklin also seems to imply a nation must be united by something such as a common language or culture or common values. “In God We Trust” became our official national motto in 1954 during a Republican administration (Eisenhower) but received almost no opposition from Democrats at the time –indeed most Southern Democrats voted for it. But an argument could be made that “In God We Trust” is an expression of the conservative American theistic worldview, a worldview which is chiefly defended, today, by Republicans. Liberal Democrats today are much more likely to support a secular humanistic view and to be Jeffersonian absolutists when it comes to “separation of Church and State.”

“E pluribus unum” is a Latin phrase that comes ultimately from a translation of a Greek philosophic quotation (probably the pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus). The Latin phrase itself is variously attributed to St. Augustine from his Confessions and to a poem that at one time was attributed to Virgil. This Latin motto represents our classical humanistic Greco-Roman heritage; it is a hallmark of the secular Enlightenment as represented by Thomas Jefferson in particular. Ultimately, we should remember, the Democratic Party has its roots in Jeffersonian Democracy. “E Pluribus Unum” is, however, by tradition, our de facto joint national motto. The reason why it “E Pluribus Unum” never been officially adopted as our national motto may have to do with the suspicion ordinary Americans have of Latin mottos which were seen as aristocratic, elite or even Roman Catholic.

By contrast “In God We Trust” was almost unanimously voted our national motto and in recent polls is supported by over 90% of Americans. This is evidence that the American people believe deeply-still- in the traditions of the Bible (our Judeo-Christian heritage) as one of the pillars of our culture and civilization.

So the rivalry of these two mottos goes back to our founding and is related to the growth of our political parties with their slightly different worldviews. Liberal Humanists favor Lockean religious toleration and they hold that man (to them “humans”) is innately good and so they remain very optimistic that if they spend more money on education or this program or that they can transform a child’s innate tendency or a poor person’s innate tendency towards goodness into genuine virtue. “E pluribus unum” represents this optimism.

Nevertheless most liberal humanists, like Franklin, can peacefully coexist with Theism or “In God We Trust”-but not all. Liberal Humanists may rankle at the suggestion that they have a totalitarian tendency towards religious intolerance or political intolerance but the fact remains Epicurean humanism also has morphed into a New Left or Marxist Humanism which endorses PC speech codes, the elimination of religion from public and private life, an extreme statism and state ownership of property and the means of production for the “benefit” of the “people.” Voltaire said “ quoi que fassiez, écrasez l’ infâme” (“whatever you do crush that infamous thing”: i.e religion ); this is essentially the attitude of Newdow of the anti-Pledge of Allegiance Case. I thought it ironic he wanted to prevent the free choice of his daughter –who was not in his custody at the time- to say the pledge which is what the girl’s mother desired.

But to the New Left nothing matters but power and imposing the “right” or “politically correct” view. These New Left Secular Humanists may not support totalitarian dictatorship per se and insist they are supporters of democracy but they are blind to the fact that the growth of the power of the state may tend towards centralism and authoritarianism. In Glasgow they used to call people like this “Corry-fisted Sullivans”; people who could only see a threat to freedom from the Right and never from the Left. Most reasonable people today would agree that threats to our freedom can come from both quarters. We must never forget that laws mean power of the state over the individual. It is why we have a Bill of Rights in the first place; not to grant us rights but to limit the government (especially the Federal government).

The American political tradition of equality and “live and let live” implies tolerance but few advocate absolute and universal toleration. There can be no toleration of slavery, inhuman child labor, human sacrifice, traffic of human organs, the Gulags or the Nazi Holocaust. Such horrific aberrations are inconsistent with a free peaceful civil society –indeed with world peace- and a free people has a right to reject and fight against such tyrannical totalitarian world views. We, as Americans tolerate sincerely held private beliefs and thoughts but we do not tolerate actions that harm others. We distrust people who desire to deprive another of his or her legitimate freedom and dignity.

Most Americans sense that there is always a conditional right to toleration. We tolerate a wide variety of private behaviors and opinions and thought as long as those opinions do not disrupt education, block public traffic or commerce or harm, kill or terrorize others. John F. Kennedy said, “The rights of man come not from the generosity of the state from the hand of God.” That is, we are “one nation, under God” or “In God We Trust.” This is very profound: for if rights are not natural or God-given to the individual then the State can grant rights or redefine them as it pleases or take them away according to what political group is in power. If we are “one nation, under God” it is implied that our government is limited.

If we are “E pluribus unum” it is implied that our liberty and strength come from our political union of states and of individuals and that we, the people, allow government to be strong. The essence of civic virtue is to believe in the value and importance of the “team”, of unity –the Union- and the necessity for individuals to be able to subordinate their interests, especially in moments of great national crisis, for the good of the survival and success of liberty and of the nation itself.

I remember the Stanley Kramer film INHERIT THE WIND with its magnificent performances by Fredrick March and Spencer Tracy. It was loosely based on the Scopes “Monkey” Trials. I remember at the very end of the trial Spencer Tracy –the Darrow-like character- picks up both the US Constitution and the Bible and carries both of them out of the court room seemingly to say BOTH were pillars of our civilization and both traditions –the Classical Humanist and Theist- could endure side by side. Personally, I think both mottos are very wise and good. Both mottos are posted in every classroom of my high school district and it is good for students and teachers to consider the origins of these ancient sayings. They represent the pluralism of our American political tradition and the peaceful coexistence of different world views which nevertheless embrace a common ground for the common good. I believe as Franklin did that these differences do not necessarily mean that America will be divided into two warring camps pledged to destroy each other. Carl J. Richard has written in THE BATTLE FOR THE AMERICAN MIND “Strongly held beliefs can be compatible with compassion and respect. The battle for the American mind must be fought with ideas, not bullets. “


January 15, 2011

American Teacher

Kern HS District

Bakersfield, California

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