Not Enough Religion? Give Me A Break!

Religious tolerance illustration

This may be a small thing, but I will ask it anyway. The question is: When did it become the norm for presidents or potential presidents to conclude their speeches with the words, “God bless the United States of America?” Those words have become the expected way that presidents end their official speeches. And I hate – yes, that is the word I want to use – I hate the modern presidential habit of ending all major addresses with the phrase “And God bless the United States of America” or simply “God bless America.”

Let me be perfectly clear here. I love the 1918 Irving Berlin song and Kate Smith’s rendition of it always inspires me. I agree wholeheartedly with the sentiment. But a little chunk is hacked away from the national brain each time a president ends a speech, not with a thought or original phrase but with this mindless Pablum. This practice has become the political equivalent of “Have a nice day!” Oh, Barf!

But isn’t this how presidents have always spoken? God, no.

We did not hear it from George Washington. We did not hear it from Abraham Lincoln, either in his second Inaugural Address or in that work of political genius, the Gettysburg Address. We did not hear it from FDR, neither in four Inaugural Addresses nor in thirty “Fireside Chats.” We neither heard these words from Gerald Ford nor from probably the most sincerely religious president of recent times, Jimmy Carter. And we did not hear them from JFK. In what has been called one of the greatest speeches in twentieth-century American public address – his eloquent and only Inaugural Address – John Fitzgerald Kennedy perhaps came the closest to uttering those words when he said: “With a good conscience our only sure reward, with history the final judge of our deeds, let us go forth to lead the land we love, asking His blessing and His help, but knowing that here on earth God’s work must truly be our own.”

In their 2007 book, The God Strategy: How Religion Became a Political Weapon in America, authors David Domke and Kevin Coe explain how and when this phrase crept into our political oratory. 

The authors state that the first president to say the phrase was Richard Nixon, who dropped the expression during an attempt at damage control for the expanding Watergate scandal on April 30, 1973. Nixon said, “Tonight, I ask for your prayers to help me in everything I do throughout the days of my presidency. God bless America and God bless each and every one of you.”

But then Ronald Reagan, “The Great Communicator,” used the line when accepting the Republican Party’s presidential nomination in 1980, and made it his standard sign-off once elected. Reagan began using the phrase to mean “The speech is over now,” and ever since then politicians have seemed afraid not to tack it on, perhaps out of fear that it will somehow sound un-patriotic if those familiar words are not heard. Since Ronald Reagan then, it has become a standard part of the language of the American presidency.

Domke and Coe note that out of the 229 major Presidential speeches from the inauguration of Franklin Roosevelt in 1933 to the end of Jimmy Carter’s term in 1981, Nixon’s use of “God bless America” was the only time a president used the phrase publicly. In contrast, from the inauguration of Reagan in 1981 to the Bush administration in 2008, 49 out of 129 major presidential addresses used the line. Since their book was written before the Obama presidency, his speeches were not included. But how do you think Barack Obama has ended his two Inaugural Addresses and every one of his State of the Union speeches? It is not difficult to guess – “God bless you, and God bless these United States of America.” Apparently, Obama began sliding down this slippery slope in his first year of office and it has now become a cliché.

Are modern presidents simply more religious than their predecessors? Domke and Coe do not think so, writing: “It’s that ‘God bless America,’ true to its presidential birth on that April evening in 1973, has grown to be politically expedient. The phrase is a simple way for Presidents and politicians of all stripes to pass the God and Country test; to sate the appetites of those in the public and press corps who want assurance that this person is a real, God-fearing American. It is the verbal equivalent of donning an American flag lapel pin: few notice if you do it, but many notice if you don’t.”

I find it remarkable to think that anyone under thirty-three years of age was not even alive during a time in which our presidents did not routinely call upon a religious deity for blessings. So perhaps it is not surprising that most Americans feel that religion’s influence is waning in spite of all evidence to the contrary.

I bring up this entire matter because according to some recent polls, Americans believe that they just do not have enough religion in their lives. Or, more precisely, not enough religion in their politics. We especially do not have enough to suit the White Anglo-Saxon Protestants (WASP’s). And it is getting worse. Eighty percent of white evangelicals and seventy-nine percent of white mainline Protestants feel that religion is no longer making its presence felt in America like it used to in the “good old days” when the Republicans were in charge.

And they think that this dearth of religion in society is a bad thing.

I happen to disagree.

I think they have been watching too much FOX & Friends.

I must admit that a small part of me feels sorry for the Religious Fundamentalists who are worried about society’s ability to manage in the face of waning enthusiasm for their brand of religion, so to help them keep the faith, and to realize that they still have some influence on the day-to-day lives of American citizens, I began to look for stories that would warm the cockles of their hearts.

And, sure enough, I found some examples. All that follows comes right out of newspaper or television reports. None of it is made up. Here is some evidence of God, or something working in society.

The first thing that I found to bring joy to their hearts of Religious Fundamentalists is the story of how these true believers in Utah can now continue to use child labor in their pecan fields because of Hobby Lobby’s enduring legacy of freedom.

Less than three months after Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg warned about the widespread repercussions of the Supreme Court’s majority decision in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, a federal judge in Utah has cited the controversial ruling in his decision to excuse a member of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints from testifying in a child labor investigation.

Since 2012, the Department of Labor had been investigating this Mormon sect over allegations that church leaders ordered children to be removed from school in order to harvest pecans on a private ranch, without pay, for up to eight hours a day.

Church member Vergel Steed refused to answer basic questions about the investigation in a deposition on the grounds that divulging information related to the church violated his religious vows. U.S. District Judge David Sam ruled that Steed could not be forced to answer the investigators’ questions about the Mormon sect or its leaders.

Citing the Supreme Court’s June ruling in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, which allows closely-held corporations to opt out of providing contraception coverage for their employees based on religious objections, Judge Sam argued that forcing Steed to answer the Labor Department’s questions would place a “substantial burden” on his religious beliefs.

“It is not for the Court to ‘inquir[e] into the theological merit of the belief in question,” Sam wrote. “‘The determination of what is a ‘religious’ belief or practice is more often than not a difficult and delicate task …. However, the resolution of that question is not to turn upon a judicial perception of the particular belief or practice in question; religious beliefs need not be acceptable, logical, consistent, or comprehensible to others in order to merit First Amendment protection.”

Yep, these Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints members can now violate laws against child labor with no fear of a federal subpoena requiring the names of church leaders who may or may not have sent children to harvest pecans. After all, did not Jesus say, “Suffer the little children to come onto me and pick pecans?” Or something like that? And then, if they are girl children, perhaps we can find husbands for them.

And there is more good news for Fundamentalists about contraception and the continuing battle to force women to produce babies so someone can pick those bloody pecans.

The Obama administration has developed new rules that would allow employers like Hobby Lobby to avoid paying for contraception coverage by making the insurers pay for it. To help those employers who feel that notifying the insurers of their intent to opt out is too onerous a burden, the government has offered to make that notification for them. I suspect that this battle has never been about providing insurance for contraception or who would pay for it. It has always been about denying women the opportunity to obtain it. After all, if they do not produce those pecan pickers, who will?

But it gets worse. That accommodation is not good enough for some employers, such as Ave Maria University, which has filed a motion to block the change.

Ave Maria University, located in the town of Ave Maria, Florida is owned and governed by the same person, Tom Monaghan, a conservative Roman Catholic – who was the one-time owner of the Detroit Tigers and also founded Domino’s Pizza. Monaghan also owns and governs the entire Town of Ave Maria, Florida and he has banned contraception in the entire town.  The one and only church in the Town of Ave Maria is owned by Tom Monaghan’s Corporation, Quasi-Parish of Ave Maria Oratory, Inc. Monaghan’s church is conveniently located in the center of the town. Currently, there is no drugstore in Ave Maria, Florida and the hospital there has never opened a clinic in Ave Maria.

Tom Monaghan’s ban on contraception for all women living within the Town of Ave Maria, Florida, regardless of their religion shows that Tom Monaghan wants to have a strangle-hold on all women, not just his employees.  But Tom Monaghan’s control of woman and men does not stop with contraception. I should note here, Tom Monaghan also founded the Ave Maria Law School in 1999. You will be comforted to know that Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia assisted in developing Monaghan’s school’s curriculum, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas gave Monaghan’s school’s their first annual Ave Maria Lecture and Ave Maria Law School Faculty included conservative Supreme Court nominee Judge Robert Bork.

Ah, there is nothing like having friends in high places ….

Tom Monaghan and his developers lobbied, and successfully persuaded the Florida State Legislature to pass a law that Monaghan wrote that allows him and his developer to govern the entire town forever. Governor Jeb Bush signed Monaghan’s bill into law in 2004. The law that Monaghan wrote turns the town from a normal town, with a mayor etc., to a “Special Interest” town whereby the landowners have zero say in the laws that Tom Monaghan enacts. Apparently, Jeb Bush saw no problem with denying residents their civil liberties, for Ave Maria, Florida is a community whose rulers, like the Taliban, offer their residents no civil liberties, not even the right to vote for local officials or local laws.

Tom Monaghan’s strangle-hold on women at Ave Maria University includes a dress-code for female employees in which it is mandated that females working at Ave Maria University can no longer wear slacks or pantsuits and can only wear skirts. Ave Maria University is already exempt from the conception mandate in Obamacare but, because they are exempt, they must notify Health & Human Services of their exemption so that must notify Health & Human Services can make certain that students and employees of Ave Maria University can get, if they so choose, contraception at no cost what-so-ever to Ave Maria University. But, Ave Maria University alleges two main positions: 1) If Ave Maria University notifies Health & Human Services, then they are culpable of “morally wrong” behavior, and 2) Even if Ave Maria University is not the one paying for the contraception, it is “morally wrong” for Ave Maria University to notify Health & Human Services. Boy, there’s a “Catch-22” if ever there was one!

Well, there you have it. The Ave Maria University’s strangle-hold on women goes way beyond suing Obamacare.  Tom Monaghan dreams of the day that he can control the lifestyle of all women, not just his employees. And I believe it is all based on what Monaghan believes is “orthodox” Christianity. Remember, Monaghan’s corporation owns the one and only church in town so, Monaghan gets to define “orthodox” and he gets to set the rules the church follows.

Apparently the only thing that would prove the lack of religious influence in our nation more than a woman controlling her own body would be the freedom of people to love whomever they love.

So here is more reassurance that we have not completely lost our way. In Philadelphia recently, a group of young people, leaving a restaurant where they had dined together, encountered a gay couple who were making their way home after dinner. Quickly confirming that the men were gay, the gang of young people beat the crap out of them, putting one in the hospital. Apparently they could not find a pile of stones – the biblical method of taking care of this matter – so had to make do with fists.

And here is one final example showing that religious influence on our society is not dead yet. This past May, Joni Mars, an Oklahoma mother and nonbeliever, has two daughters who were bullied by their peers and, in the case of her six-year-old daughter, beaten while riding the school bus. The six-year-old was assaulted on the bus after telling another student that she did not believe in God. The other child responded by spitting on and pinching the young girl. “The other little kids on the bus were egging him on and telling him to hit her and kick her. So he did,” Mars reported. Mars’ daughter came home covered in bruises and crying. When Mars approached the other child’s family, they promised to take care of it, but the same child assaulted her daughter again three days later on the playground. “That was the final straw,” Mars said. When all else failed, the Mars family moved from Oklahoma City to upstate New York, hoping to live somewhere more progressive.

How anxious were those youngsters to convert nonbelievers! And surely, there is no better way to convince a six-year old girl of the existence of a god than by beating her up.

So you see, there are still plenty of signs of the influence of religion on our society. There are so many willing to help spread “the good news,” using fists, or stones, or spittle, or intimidation, or whatever else is handy.

But this is such exhausting and depressing stuff for me. The only thing that I have enough energy to say to all of this is… nah, to hell with any further thought. God Bless America! Somebody better do it – and sooner rather than later.

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