There’s a classic bit of stand-up comedy from “The Flip Wilson Show” in 1972 (you can find it on YouTube.com) where the great Albert Brooks imagines what might happen if the United States ever decided it needed a new national anthem. One entrant:
”I like the USA, ooh-ooh.
“I like the USA.
”It’s better than Russia.
“Or China. It’s better than Yugo-slahhv-I like the USA.”
The key to the bit is the absurdity of the idea. Nobody’s ever going to mess with the national anthem, just like nobody’s ever going to mess with the national motto.
But then again, you can’t ever be too sure.
The U.S. House of Representatives devoted much of a day last week to debating a resolution that reaffirmed that “In God We Trust” is the national motto. Not surprisingly, it passed, squeaking by on a 396-9 margin.
This was a little surprising. No one had been challenging the motto and when Republicans took charge of the chamber in January, they vowed that they weren’t going to waste time and money on symbolic and commemorative resolutions. Indeed, after President Obama announced May 1 that Navy SEALs had killed Osama bin Laden, the House refused to take up a resolution praising U.S. troops and the intelligence community.
Spies? Not worth it.
Troops? Not worth it.
God? Worth it.
“I realize there are some who don’t see a difference between what we’re doing from naming a post office or commending some athletic team,” said Rep. Randy Forbes, R-Va., the sponsor of the resolution. “But I happen to believe when Thomas Jefferson stated in the Declaration of Independence that our rights came from God, that he didn’t think it was irrelevant or not important.”
You can’t argue with logic like that.
So what did it cost taxpayers to reaffirm “In God We Trust?” It sort of depends on how you figure it.
The House budget is $1.36 billion this year. It devoted one of the year’s 365 days to this issue, so that would be $3.7 million. But the House usually is only in session about 130 days a year, and it spent one of those days on this resolution, so that’s more than $10 million.
But the House members worked on other stuff, too, and their staffs — who do most of the work anyway — were getting other stuff done, so you have to factor that in. Based on one estimate of what it cost the House to spend 90 minutes reading the Constitution last Jan. 5, a million bucks is a fair guess for the cost for reaffirming “In God We Trust.”
Would God be pleased? The Bible says he wants to be worshipped. But it also says he wants us to sell our possessions and give the money to the poor, which is sort of a wealth-redistribution thing.
Interpreting God’s will, and separating it from our own, is pretty tricky. A lot of evil has been done under pro-God mottoes. Richard II slaughtered the Saracens under the banner “Deus vult” — God wills it. Every Wehrmacht soldier during World War II wore a belt buckle that featured a swastika, an eagle and the motto “Gott mit uns” — God is with us. The cockpit recording from United Flight 93 on Sept. 11, 2001, ends with a guy repeating “Allahu akbar!” over and over.
“In God We Trust” suggests that we’re going to do whatever we think God wants us to do. This is not particularly helpful, because people of good will often have distinctly different ideas of what God wants us to do. Indeed, there are plenty of people of good will who are skeptical of God’s very existence, or at least of his interest in our affairs.
That’s OK, according to the U.S. Supreme Court, because for government purposes, God really means “God-ish.”
Wrote Justice William J. Brennan in a 1984 dissent to one of those tedious “creche in the public square” cases: “I would suggest that such practices as the designation of ‘In God We Trust’ as our national motto, or the references to God contained in the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag can best be understood . . . as a form of ‘ceremonial deism,’ protected from Establishment Clause scrutiny chiefly because they have lost through rote repetition any significant religious content.”
But Forbes, the resolution’s sponsor, professed to be worried that “In God We Trust” was losing its punch. Designers of the new Capitol Visitors Center and new presidential dollar coins had tried to marginalize the motto. In a speech last December, Obama mistakenly said “E Pluribus Unum” was the national motto.
Shockingly, “In God is our trust” doesn’t even show up in the national anthem until the fourth verse, and no one ever sings that.
Something should be done about that.