The author loves South Dakota's unspoiled beauty but gets discouraged by the conservative state's long-time lack of inclusivity.
South Dakota Pushes Back Against Inclusivity
Many middle-aged Americans recall their elementary school civics teacher describing our country as a great melting pot. They looked around, though, and thought the moniker hardly seemed fitting as a society back then was domineered by white male Christians. Fast forward, and the designation now seems much more apt. This is especially true for Americans who live in urban areas and experience the joys and frustrations of maneuvering an ultra-diverse world on a daily basis.
At work and at school, in our civic institutions, and in our communities, we deal with people who are unlike us in their nationalities, ethnicities, cultures, customs, sexuality, gender identity, beliefs, and religions. Challenged to live up to the ideal of America that involves celebrating our differences, we're bolstered by the fact that we're all in this together. Yet, is this really true? We need only look at the sparsely populated state of South Dakota (less than a million citizens, compared to California with over 39 million) to discover that the answer is a resounding no!
A State Struggles to Attract New Residents
Unlike states with too many people, too much traffic, too many homeless, and not enough affordable housing, many small towns in South Dakota are actually losing residents. According to the US Census Bureau, more than half of rural communities there had either flat or dwindling populations between 2010 and 2017.
To attract new South Dakotans, the 46th most densely populated state in the US created a lighthearted commercial. Instead of rocketing off to Mars, a destination that would surely prove fatal, folks are encouraged to move there instead. The ad argues that, unlike the red planet, Mount Rushmore State is inhabitable with plenty of oxygen.
Ironically, the most humorous line in the commercial is not intended to be so. Yet, when the ultra-conservative state gets described as progressive, it's so preposterous that it elicits a belly laugh from anyone in the know. After all, South Dakota has not supported a Democrat for president since 1964. In fact, it didn't even back George McGovern in 1972, who was born and bred in the state!
In this ad, people are encouraged to move to South Dakota even though the state passed legislation that makes it less welcoming to folks who are LGBTQ and non-religious.
The Welcome Only Extends to Certain Groups
Despite the welcoming commercial, it's apparent that South Dakota only wants to tempt certain people: straight, religious ones. Bypassing concerns over the separation of church and state, lawmakers there required all public schools to add the words In God We Trust in big, bold letters in heavily trafficked areas of the buildings. They defend this religious message, arguing that it's the official motto of the US and promotes patriotism in young people.
A Christian Rights group called the Congressional Prayer Caucus Foundation aided South Dakota in passing this law and aims to get it implemented in all 50 states. Its political agenda also includes passing legislation that would mandate schools to teach about the Old and New Testament, to instruct students that sex between married men and women is most desirable, and to promote prayer in the public square.
Critics argue that getting In God We Trust emblazoned at public schools in South Dakota (and six other states) simply marks the group's first achievement and that their conservative agenda is far more ambitious. It includes passing laws that would marginalize those who are LGBTQ as well as the growing number of individuals who identify as nonreligious. When looking at their website (dressed up in red, white, and blue, adorned with an American flag, and featuring actor Chuck Norris), it's apparent that they're doing it all under the pretense of being a patriotic, freedom-loving organization and nothing more.
Roy Speckhardt, executive director of the American Humanist Association, penned a letter to newly elected members of Congress, discouraging them from joining the Congressional Prayer Caucus and warning of its hidden agenda. He wrote:
"One in five Americans now identifies as nonreligious, and the numbers of nonreligious, atheist and humanist individuals in the country continue to grow. When members of Congress publicly endorse public prayer and religion, they alienate the increasing populations of Americans who are good without a god as well as Americans of minority religions."
This video makes it seem like displaying In God We Trust is an innocuous thing at schools in South Dakota but fails to mention the Christian Right group behind it.
South Dakota Shuns the Nones
Emblazoning In God We Trust at public schools may seem like a safe bet and politically expedient to lawmakers in this conservative state. However, changing demographics in South Dakota and throughout our nation may prove them wrong in the long-run.
According to the General Social Survey, individuals who don't affiliate with any religion (often called "nones") now make up a whopping 23 percent of the population. That number is nearly identical to the 22 percent that identify as evangelical and the 23 percent that identify as Catholic. Moreover, none have been growing steadily during the past 20 years, and that's expected to continue. The 2014 Pew Research survey reveals that only 36 percent of college-aged students claim a religious affiliation.
The Young Identify as Nones for Their Survival
Some young people, seeing climate change hit us harder and earlier than had been predicted, now embrace science over religion as an act of survival. They reject traditional faiths, seeing them as passive with a fatalistic it's in God's hand's approach. They interpret In God We Trust as a sign of surrender in the battle against climate change rather than just an innocuous patriotic slogan. As such, a group of teens at Stevens High School in Rapid City, South Dakota proposed that the wording read In Science We Trust, but their suggestion was ignored by the school board.
The State Flaunts Its White Privilege
Instead of tossing away the welcome mat, South Dakota should be adding one to its doorstep. Although it's largely homogeneous (84 percent of its residents are white), the Mount Rushmore State has a long, ugly history of being intolerant of its large Native American population. When visiting for any length of time, you'll hear white folks at bars, parks, and shopping centers talking with disdain about them. They shamelessly blame them for their sorry lot in life with no empathy for the suffering they've endured because of the White Man and his government.
Whites and Native Americans in South Dakota lead vastly different lives. Nearly half of the Natives there exist below the poverty level. The Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, which is the size of Connecticut and home to over 18,000 residents, is located in the poorest county in the entire US. It has the lowest life expectancy in the nation. One in four youngsters there is diagnosed with either Fetal Alcohol Syndrome or Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder. The infant mortality rate is 300 percent higher than the US national average. The teen suicide rate is 150 percent higher than the US national average. The high school dropout rate is 70 percent.
Yet, even with these deplorable statistics, South Dakota lawmakers shamelessly flaunt their white privilege. They make their state even less inclusive by emblazoning In God We Trust at all public schools. They try to hide their bigotry behind a patriotic slogan, but the Native Americans know of it all too well. Since South Dakotans don't have empathy for their neighbors on the reservation, it's little wonder that they're intolerant of those in the LGBTQ community and the non-religious.
Despite the gains that the LGBTQ community has made in other states, right-wing South Dakota is still passing laws that discriminate against them on moral and religious grounds.
Today, most of us are exhausted and overwhelmed by the myriad of problems facing our nation. Therefore, it's been easy for South Dakota and the Congressional Prayer Caucus Foundation to steadily and stealthily move forward with their plans to marginalize those who are nonreligious and LGBTQ. At this critical time for citizens of our planet to take action, students at public schools throughout the Mount Rushmore State are now greeted each day with the passive message In God We Trust.
Too many voices, both young and old, are getting silenced throughout our nation. One can't help but wonder how much longer our democratic republic can survive under these conditions. Ordering that In God We Trust be stenciled at public school buildings may make lawmakers in South Dakota feel like they've accomplished something meaningful. Yet, for many of us in other parts of the country, it makes us angry, exasperated, and a little more hopeless.
This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.
© 2019 McKenna Meyers