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A March 4 headline read "'In God We Trust' signs going up in schools." New Arkansas legislation requires public schools to display such posters whenever someone donates them. The American Legion of Bentonville, Hobby Lobby and other organizations have donated more than 1,100 posters to school districts in Bentonville, Pea Ridge, Gravette, Gentry, Siloam Springs and perhaps other Northwest Arkansas schools. Similar legislation passed recently in Florida and Mississippi, and bills have been introduced in Alabama, Arizona, Minnesota, Oklahoma, South Carolina and Tennessee.

"In God We Trust" first appeared on coins in 1864 toward the end of the Civil War. It was adopted as our nation's official motto in 1956 at the recommendation of then-President Eisenhower and should be viewed in the historical context of the McCarthy era's obsessive campaign against "Godless communism," which climaxed at that time. The new motto replaced the unofficial "E Pluribus Unum" ("out of many, one"), a classy, appropriate and inspiring motto that was incorporated in 1782 into the Great Seal of the United States by Congress.

Unfortunately, Eisenhower didn't consult me about his recommendation, despite my fearless performance at that time playing trombone in an Army band in peacetime Germany. I would have recommended sticking with "E Pluribus Unum."

One objection to posting the motto is that signs instructing students to trust in God violate the First Amendment's "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion."

A bigger problem, in my opinion, is that the motto itself is not true. "We" don't all trust in God. For example, I certainly don't trust in God. I don't even think he exists.

More importantly, a survey of 35,000 Americans by the Pew Forum On Religion and Public Life found the number of adults describing themselves as atheist, agnostic or "nothing in particular" jumped from 16 percent in 2007 to 23 percent in 2014. This fraction rose to 38 percent in 2014 among 18-29 year-olds. A 2017 Gallup poll finds 33 percent of Americans are "not religious." It's false to say "we" as a nation trust in God.

Since it's going to be posted in schools, it should at least be factual. How about "In God Some of Us Trust?" My suggestion would be to return to "E Pluribus Unum."

Besides being untrue, the motto is unfair. If we post this motto in schools, students from the many families that find no evidence for a God will see their family's beliefs undermined every time they enter a school building.

But my main complaint is that, even if there were a God, "trusting" in God would not be a good idea. Here's why.

If God exists, then he or she helped create the marvelous brains that are our defining feature and the chief reason for our biological survival. Any God worthy of the name would surely want us to use our brains for their obvious biological task: rational decision-making in light of the available evidence. In this dangerous era of nuclear weapons, global warming, overpopulation and other threats, we'd better start using our unique frontal lobes to think for ourselves. "Trusting" is not doing the job.

So whether there's a God or not, it's a big mistake to make public policy decisions based on trust rather than evidence and reason. For example, some Florida legislators frame that state's motto-posting bill as an appropriate religious response to the Parkland school shooting. Florida State Rep. Kim Daniels, a sponsor of the motto-posting bill, argued 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," meaning we should proclaim our trust in God. But trusting God instead of addressing guns is no way to run a state or a nation.

It seems our best response to issues of foreign policy, school shootings and so forth is to use our brains. Forget the religious ideologies and the political ideologies, follow the evidence, and rationally evaluate our goals and the best path to achieve them. There is strong evidence that this works: The nations of northern Europe are far less religious than us, while their public social indicators (crime rates, literacy, abortion rates, poverty, health, life satisfaction, etc.) are the most positive in the world. And there is similar evidence among the U.S. states: Traditional Southern states such as Arkansas tend to be more religious yet less successful as measured by these same social indicators.

Maybe it's time to use our heads.

Commentary on 03/27/2018

Print Headline: In God We Trust?

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