This is the text of a response I gave to a criticism of my previous commentary from one of my friends:
“I don’t agree this is a small issue, except in as much as it involves the rights of the small constituency that is not religious, or that practices a religion other than Christianity.
I don’t know where you’re getting your information about past Presidents and their inauguration procedures. Wikipedia has a fully cited page on this, showing where its contributors got their information, and, for example, your suggestion that Theodore Roosevelt didn’t use a Bible is shown to be in error there. Also, there was another president besides J. Q. Adams that did use a law book, namely Franklin Pierce: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_States_presidential_inauguration
If your point is that because the overwhelming number of presidents did swear on a Bible that it must be consistent with American traditions about church and state, then I can’t argue with that in a certain sense. US Courts have upheld your view of this, that somehow swearing on the religious text of one religion doesn’t exclude those who do not practice that religion from their proper influence on religious life. You can certainly portray me as out of step with moderate opinion on that basis if you like.
However, this is part of a larger thing. Take, for example, the country’s religiously-inspired “In God We Trust Motto”. That was put on coins in the 1870s after a religiously-inspired campaign to distinguish Americans from “the ignominy of heathenism”. Note that this is the way the US Treasury website tells the story: http://www.treasury.gov/about/education/Pages/in-god-we-trust.aspx
I’m a heathen, so you know, I might take that personally. This minister wanted that to be the country’s motto to save the world from _me_ and _people like me_. I consider that discrimination as seriously as any member of a group historically discriminated against would consider it.
“In God We Trust” was made the official motto of the US in the 1950s, as part of a religiously-inspired campaign against “godless Communism” which also saw “under God” slipped into a Pledge of Allegiance speech which up until that point had been secular. Why do this? The American Civil Liberties Union argued, in the case they lost before the Supreme Court in 2002, that the reason was so “schoolchildren would daily declare religious belief and affirm religion”. In their amicus brief for that 2002 case, they itemised, beginning on page 19 of the brief, the numerous times those campaigning for the “under God” change wanted the change. These do not argue well for the idea that this was an innocuous change designed merely to acknowledge the country’s Christian heritage. One representative declared, when the measure was proposed that he wanted to respect that “the fundamental issue which is the unbridgeable gap between America and Communist Russia is a belief in Almighty God.” In other words, the legislative intent of this law was to suggest the non-religious are more likely to be disloyal. http://www.aclu.org/files/FilesPDFs/elkgrove.pdf
When Eisenhower accepted the change to the Pledge, he said this: “FROM THIS DAY FORWARD, the millions of our school children will daily proclaim in every city and town, every village and rural school house, the dedication of our nation and our people to the Almighty.” So it _was_ a big deal to him, it was him specifically defining the country’s mission as an explicitly religious one. It wasn’t just a minor concession to the largest religious group in the country we could all agree isn’t important. http://www.lb9.uscourts.gov/webcites/10documents/Newdow_god.pdf
Eisenhower explained himself this way about his choice: “And this is how they [the Founding Fathers in 1776] explained those: ‘we hold that all men are endowed by their Creator…’ not by the accident of their birth, not by the color of their skins or by anything else, but ‘all men are endowed by their Creator.’ In other words, our form of government has no sense unless it is founded in a deeply-felt religious faith, and I don’t care what it is. With us of course it is the Judeo-Christian concept, but it must be a religion with all men are created equal.” That’s dandy, and the best argument the “don’t make such a big deal of this” crowd can muster, I’m sure. But the problem with that is that a lot of us secular humanist types think that we can believe all people are created equal without appealing to a deity…and also that certain religious blusterers preach the opposite of human equality in any case. Maybe a few more specifics on what being this necessary creed of the real American involves would be nice there, because I think it doesn’t have to involve faith in the supernatural, and certainly not all believers in the supernatural distinguish themselves by having the kinds of sentiments Eisenhower thought them to have. With respect to Eisenhower, I take the egalitarianism in his comment more seriously than his attitude about religion. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/And_I_don’t_care_what_it_is
Anyway, I get the argument you’re making, that this is just a tradition and I shouldn’t make such a big deal out of it. I live in a country that has a Queen and makes similar arguments for ignoring the importance of that, and that’s fine. If this doesn’t change tomorrow, I will somehow manage to get on with my life, agreed. But the difference between you and me on this issue is that I see things like public traditional religious proclamations and monarchical institutions as representing the ugly past – and worse, giving a forum to those who would like to bring that ugly past back. The British monarchy may be a traditional vestigial tail institution in this country, but Canadian monarchists are typically those who look the other way at injustice because it’s “traditional”. Americans swearing on Bibles may also be a vestigial tail institution, but American religious nuts still think the presence of that Bible is very important, and part of their larger intolerant plans.
I stand by what I said.”