Gays and Atheists Under Attack as States Pass New Laws
While the Rest of the US Pushes for More Inclusivity, South Dakota Balks
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 society back then was domineered by white male Christians. Fast forward to today 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, 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... but are we really? 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 the answer is a resounding “no!”
South Dakotans live in a 1950's bubble while most Americans grapple with diversity, inclusivity, and an ever-changing society. Although rarely scrutinized by the nation at large, this homogeneous, sparsely populated state with less than a million residents wields an inordinate amount of power. Just like heavily populated states such as California, Texas, and Florida, it has an equal voice in the Senate with two senators.
South Dakota's Humorous But Misleading Commercial Urges People to Move There
Unlike other places that struggle 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 potential new South Dakotans, the 46th most densely populated state in the US created a lighthearted commercial. Instead of rocketing off to Mars, a voyage that would surely be fatal, folks are encouraged to move there instead. The ad argues that, unlike the red planet, the 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, not even George McGovern in 1972, who was from the state!
While Others States Strive to Become More Inclusive, South Dakota Becomes Less So
However, despite their commercial, it's apparent to me that South Dakota only wants to tempt certain people to their sparsely populated state: straight religious ones. Bypassing concerns over separation of church and state, lawmakers there required all public schools to add the words “In God We Trust” with big, bold letters in heavily trafficked areas of the buildings. They defend this religious message, arguing it's the official motto of the US and promotes patriotism in our youngsters.
A Christian Right 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."
The taxpayer-funded Congressional Prayer Caucus gave rise to the Congressional Prayer Caucus Foundation. Its members (nearly all Republicans) believe that faith and prayer should play a significant role in American life. John Fleming, a former representative from Louisiana, stated the group's purpose as such: “We do what we can to make sure that legislation emerges with what we believe to be American, Christian values.”
This video makes it seem like displaying "In God We Trust" is an innocuous thing 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, nones 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.
“Nones” include those who identify themselves as atheists or agnostics as well as those who say their religion is “nothing in particular.” Nones now make up about 23 percent of the US population according to the Pew Research Center's 2014 Religious Landscape Study.
Young People Identify as Nones for Their Very Survival
Some young people, seeing climate change hit us harder and earlier than had been predicted, now view embracing science over religion as an act of survival. They reject traditional faiths, seeing them as passive with a fatalistic "it's in God's hands" 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.
Teens suggested "In Science We Trust" instead of "In God We Trust" but were shut down.
Homogenous and Intolerant
Instead of tossing away the welcome mat, South Dakota should be putting one on its doorstep. Although it's largely homogeneous, with 84 percent of residents being 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 the Natives. 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 drop out 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 it all too well. South Dakotans don't have empathy for their neighbors on the reservation, let alone those of us in other states.
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 "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.
What do you think?
Do you support South Dakota's law that required "In God We Trust" be emblazoned in all public school buildings?
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© 2019 McKenna Meyers