Hoping to inspire patriotism in students, a new South Dakota state law requires the prominent display of the national motto “In God We Trust” in public schools. But “patriotism” is far from the point. It is, rather, a cover for pushing Judeo-Christian religious ideology. And it’s a shame South Dakota schools will be wasting time and money to install the motto (and fight for it in the inevitable court battles). Those resources would be better used to teach kids how to live in an increasingly secular and non-religious world. In other words, South Dakota school officials are failing. They should do their jobs and teach children reality rather than promote religion.
Let’s be very clear. There are numerous secular ways to inspire patriotism in students without bringing God into it. Why not use the phrase “We the People”? Why not have a mandatory and thoughtful civics course that promotes discussion? How about making sure every 18-year-old is registered to vote?
The phrase “In God We Trust” is not foundational to our democracy or, in fact, our nation. It was enshrined in our national motto in 1956, long after the founders were dust in their tombs. Suggesting the display of the phrase will make kids patriotic is specious. The South Dakota law, like similar laws in Bible belt states such as Louisiana, Arkansas, Tennessee, Florida, Alabama, and Arizona, has one goal — to bring God into public school.
Frankly, God has no business being in public school, unless being invoked in muttered, desperate personal prayers before a pop quiz. The purpose of public education is to prepare children for the world, and the world is increasingly turning away from the notion of God. According to a Pew Research Center report, the ranks of those who affiliate with Christianity have fallen year over year while those who say they are unaffiliated have increased in number. The trend is specifically stark for millennials, 35 percent of whom report having no religious affiliation.
It is clear, then, that our country is making a secular shift. Teaching kids that a belief in God is foundational is not just historically anachronistic, it’s counterproductive. Public school should be placing emphasis on the skills that will help kids live in a secular world, like creative thinking, emotional intelligence, and independence. Pushing a trust in God takes agency from a child’s hands and places it in the purview of an invisible deity with a diminishing scope of influence in the United States.
That’s not to say religious education is wrong or bad. I send my two children to a parochial school. That’s because Catholic education is a priority for me and my family, for both cultural and pedagogical reasons. But that is my choice. And it’s important to note religious education is also a viable choice for parents in South Dakota too. If they feel that kids should be educated with faith, they have the option to pursue that route.
I fully accept that my kids will be entering the world with an education that is in some ways at odds with the prevailing trends of our culture. It will be helpful for them to navigate their family’s religious history and traditions. It might even be beneficial to their future faith. But I have absolutely no illusions that it will help them better navigate an increasingly secular America.
Pushing God in public schools through the display of our national motto is simply wrong-headed. For the foundation of faith, it is a laughably weak and impotent measure. For preparing kids for life, it is regressive and wasteful.