Current Events in Education

Patriotism and Politics: “In God We Trust” in Public Schools

As the 2019-2020 school year commences, the calendar might as well read the year 1956–the year President Eisenhower included “one nation under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance and the national motto declared:  “In God We Trust.”
Although the futuristic year of 2020 is upon us, we continue to live in a time of anxiety and fear akin to the Cold War Era.
This school year, schools in South Dakota join six other states that proudly display “In God We Trust,”  on their school walls. NPR’s Dani Matias reports: “Gov. Kristi Noem signed the requirement into law in March. It says the motto must be at least 12-by-12-inches in size and easily legible. It can take the form of a mounted plaque, student artwork, or other appropriate forms determined by the school principal.”
Arkansas, Alabama, Arizona, Florida, Kentucky, Louisiana, Tennessee and now South Dakota are areas of the United States that equate “In God We Trust” with patriotism. Matias writes: “Lawmakers who proposed the law believe the quote will inspire patriotism, according to The Associated Press.”
Why now? Is patriotism waning? Are school children secretly anarchists, or communists? Why are these predominantly red states compelled to brand patriotism with a national motto that limits the definition of the word? What is the historical model for displaying love of one’s country? Was Harriet Tubman patriotic by breaking the Fugitive Slave Laws? Was Dr. King patriotic inciting civil disobedience? How about Colin Kapernick and his taking of a knee? Is the definition of the word narrow or wide? Can one dissent and love their country, or is conformity and adherence to Judeo-Christian principles the only path towards civic responsibility?
“In God We Trust” is a national motto based in a time of extreme anti-Soviet propaganda. The fear of mutually assured destruction and the belief of atheism combined to make “In God We Trust” a mission statement for capitalism, Christianity, and national unity. South Dakota and her like-minded brethren are loudly declaring that they desire a specific brand of patriotism, a limited definition of a real red-blooded, God-fearing American!
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What message does the visual send Muslim students who call their God Allah? What about non-religious students? The founding fathers believed in freedom of religion, including freedom from the tyranny of one religion.
Patriotism slips naturally towards nationalism. Nationalism is a small-minded view of citizenship. Extreme nationalism is fascism.
As a social studies educator in New York State, I would be extremely uncomfortable if the national motto was conspicuous in our schools. The goal of patriotism is not blind allegiance. Instead, civics–the study of philosophy, law, and values must be the focus of an education. Civics leads to critical thinking. Patriotism fosters extremism.
No, we have too many examples of violent extremists who see God and country as the same. These are the young, white men who fear a changing America. These are the people pushing the alt-right agenda, embolden by talk of foreigners invading and Islamic terrorists. This limited world view causes a Walmart to become a battleground and schools to become incubators for hate.
Schools are not appropriate places for narrow definitions of religion and politics. Schools are inclusive environments, celebrating our real power as a country, demonstrated by an apter national motto: E Pluribus Unum–out of many, one.

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