- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 17, 2000

What William Bennett described as America's "culture war" has gained new prominence by the recent controversy over the proper use of the National Motto, "In God We Trust."

The spark for this debate came when the Colorado State Board of Education passed a non-binding resolution encouraging "appropriate display of the National Motto in schools and other public buildings." Three weeks later the U.S. House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed a nearly identical resolution.

Given concern over the real dangers faced by schoolchildren today and the overwhelming support of elected officials, it seemed unlikely any reasonable person could seriously oppose these resolutions.

No so. Immediately following Colorado's action the American Civil Liberties Union threatened to sue any school that dared to expose children to this dangerous kind of expression.

How strange that an organization devoted to defending freedom of expression should be so adamant in denying the people's right to express a sentiment accepted in our society for centuries and repeatedly upheld by federal courts.

This opposition is clearly reflective of a fault line among opinion-makers regarding the role of values in our society. As Mr. Bennett and others have pointed out, this conflict, if unresolved, has most serious implications for the future cohesiveness of our democracy.

The acknowledgement of a Supreme Being has always been embedded in our public life. From the Mayflower Compact to the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and beyond such references were near universal and unchallenged.

The Founding Fathers' idea of separation of church and state was very simply that no one religion should be allowed to trespass upon the rights of any other. This in no way conflicted with their equally deep conviction that religion would always be the foundation of public morality, and as such, essential to the future well-being of the new republic.

So pervasive were these sentiments that our legal tradition ceased to view them as religious per se, but rather secular speech of a patriotic character.

"In God We Trust" was introduced to our currency under Abraham Lincoln and formally adopted as the National Motto under Dwight Eisenhower. All subsequent legal challenges to the National Motto have been rebuffed by the federal courts which defined "In God We Trust" as a form of "ceremonial deism," secular, not religious in character and having the purpose not of promoting religion but rather fostering patriotism and celebrating the national heritage.

Our nation's schoolchildren open each day by reciting the Pledge of Allegiance including the phrase "one nation under God." Also, one of the verses of the National Anthem says, "In God is our trust."

Those who would ban the Pledge of Allegiance, the National Anthem and the National Motto in our schools are advocating an extremist point of view that can do enormous harm to our national life.

If our schools can be cleansed of all references to God, then the threat to our society as a whole is self-evident.

These advocates of thoroughgoing secularization sincerely believe such a society would be a more "tolerant" place. Yet the last century gives examples of wholly secularized states Adolf Hitler's Germany, Josef Stalin's Russia that should be sufficiently horrific to give pause to anyone dreaming of a new and better Secular America.

Among the growing numbers of people abandoning public schools, and the larger number wanting to but too poor to afford it, the most commonly cited reasons revolve around values.

As more parents come to see schools as "value-free zones" that undermine the values they seek to foster at home, we are in serious trouble. Virtually the entirety of our population, whatever their faith, acknowledges God. Through history, our schools like our society have done so as well. This common bond has been a transcendent and unifying element in our nation's life.

If by tortured logic, we deny this heritage, we are attacking the sense of unity upon which our civil society depends.

History teaches us that traditions, values and freedom itself are lost incrementally in a thousand careless little steps.

Let us reflect deeply, and then step back from this perilous path. All who care about the future of our children and our country will know how much is at stake.

William J. Moloney is commissioner of education for Colorado and a board member of the Education Leader's Council. ELC's Web site is www.educationleaders.org.

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