The Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) has sent a letter to the U.S. Department of State demanding that the following inspirational quotations be removed from all U.S. passports:
"That this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom."-- Abraham Lincoln, Gettysburg Address
"The God who gave us life, gave us liberty at the same time."-- Thomas Jefferson
"We have a great dream. It started way back in 1776, and God grant that America will be true to her dream."-- Martin Luther King Jr.
"May God continue the unity of our country as the railroad unites the two great oceans of the world." -- Inscribed on the Golden Spike, Promontory Point, 1869
It appears they forgot one, which I also found in my passport:
"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." -- Excerpt from the Declaration of Independence
I try to be a unifier whenever possible. Although my Jewish faith is important to me, I have great love and affinity for the wisdom traditions of other religions, especially Christianity which shares 75 percent of its bible with my own. I'm also a scientifically oriented person, so I feel great respect for agnostics because they value truth too highly in their hearts to undertake a belief without hard evidence.
I believe I have found common ground with atheists as well, but my friendly overtures are usually rebuffed. It's sad because I believe they and I are both committed to faith. We agree that the universe exists, and I'm sure we agree that we cannot know with certainty why it exists. To say that it happened spontaneously -- without the help of a Creator -e seems illogical to me, but I grant that it is statistically possible. To claim that it definitely happened that way is not supported by evidence, and therefore such a statement is a belief; a matter of faith. Now let us see how the adherents of this particular faith wish to impact American public life.
The FFRF claims that inclusion of the quotations they listed above in a U.S. passport violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. That clause states, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion." Our Founding Fathers added this clause to the Constitution in order to ensure that American government would not favor one religion over another, as the British government favored the Church of England. This protection is crucial to the American system of liberal democracy. It guarantees that every American will remain forever free to practice her or his own faith without interference from the government.
The question before us is whether the 'God' quotations in our passports demonstrate that the U.S. government favors God-believing Americans over Atheists. The Supreme Court has prohibited exhibition of the Ten Commandments in a courthouse because such a display would create the impression that the laws enforced within that courthouse are derived from the Judeo-Christian Bible. On the other hand, the Supreme Court did allow students to leave public school in order to attend religious school during set hours so long as the kids' parents approved and the religious schools shared attendance records with the public school in order to avoid truancy. No public funds were used for religious purposes, and no student was forced to receive religious instruction. In the latter case, the Court noted:
"We are a religious people whose institutions presuppose a Supreme Being. We guarantee the freedom to worship as one chooses. We make room for as wide a variety of beliefs and creeds as the spiritual needs of man deem necessary. We sponsor an attitude on the part of government that shows no partiality to any one group and that lets each flourish according to the zeal of its adherents and the appeal of its dogma... To hold [otherwise] would be to find in the Constitution a requirement that the government show a callous indifference to religious groups. That would be preferring those who believe in no religion over those who do believe."
-- Zorach v. Clausen, 343 U.S. 313 (1952)
Applying this principle to the passport quotations, I ask the atheists, "How are you hurt by the presence of these words?" The majority of the quotations in the passport do not invoke God. If the absence of God is the emblem of your faith, you're getting more than your fair share, because the vast majority of Americans do believe in God. The quotations don't tell anyone how, when, where, or whether to believe in God. They simply capture the spirit of an important moment in American history.
Lincoln's quotation, for example, was uttered at the dedication of a national cemetery on the site of the bloodiest battle in our history. Though he adhered to no particular church, Lincoln struggled to believe that all those deaths served a higher purpose, not only in American history, but in human history. In his Second Inaugural Address, he would extend this theme, suggesting that God had meted out justice to all Americans for their collective sin in allowing slavery to endure for 88 years before finally ending it through the conflagration of the Civil War.
I admire political leaders who invoke the assistance of God in administering their office because they thus show Lincoln-like humility. I believe that a sovereign who respects a higher power is less likely to abuse the power with which he or she has been entrusted. Hitler and Stalin, for example, did not believe in a power higher than themselves.
Have atrocities been committed in the name of God? Of course they have -- by evil people paying lip service to God rather than real service. It is for this reason that Jews around the world recite a prayer for their country every week as part of the Sabbath liturgy:
"Our God and God of our ancestors, we invoke Your blessing upon our country, on the government and leaders of our nation, and on all who exercise rightful authority in our community. Instruct them in the wisdom of Your Torah, that they may administer all affairs of state fairly; that peace and security, happiness and prosperity, right and freedom may be part of our daily lives."
I suspect other faiths have similar prayers. We don't ask atheists to share our prayers, but I respectfully request that the atheists of the FFRF withdraw their demand that we erase historical invocations by our leaders from our national documents.
The good news is, if you come over to my way of thinking, you won't find yourselves amending your letter to further demand that the Declaration of Independence be struck from our public monuments and spaces.
Salvador Litvak wrote and directed Saving Lincoln, the true story of Abraham Lincoln and his closest friend & bodyguard, Ward Hill Lamon, featuring sets and locations created from actual Civil War photographs.