I couldn’t suppress a grin last week when I saw the exciting news. The House Committee on Natural Resources, now under Democratic control, was about to change its rules for witnesses at committee hearings by deleting the phrase “so help you God” from the required oath. “At last,” I thought, “somebody is showing a little fortitude, a little fairness, by not forcing people so say something they don’t really believe. If witnesses choose to add those words themselves, that’s up to them. But it’s no part of the government’s business to be nudging people either toward or away from expressions of religious belief.”
I was plunging into my research about the history and practice of government oaths, refreshing my recollection that historians have no evidence that George Washington—or any other president prior to 1881—chose to muddle the constitutionally mandated oath by tacking on his own words at the end. I was framing an upbeat article about how patience with the political process can sometimes pay off when another “Breaking News” flash hit: the committee Democrats had just caved, and “so help you God” would remain in the oath after all. End of grin.
Very little information has been forthcoming from committee officials about why the change was proposed in the first place, or why it was suddenly withdrawn. The chairman simply characterized the change as a “mistake.” He didn’t specify what kind—a “someone’s fingers accidentally slipped on the keyboard” type of mistake, or a “Gosh, someone might say bad things about us!” type of mistake. All we know is that there was a general updating of the rules, including updating the gender usage from “chairman” to “chair,” and whoever prepared that update also decided to pull the God advertisement out of the oath. Fox News complained, and then the Democrats knuckled under.
The comment that seems to have triggered the Democratic anxiety came from Rep. Liz Cheney: “It is incredible, but not surprising, that the Democrats would try to remove God from committee proceedings in one of their first acts in the majority. They really have become the party of Karl Marx.” Some people might say it’s better to be the party of Karl Marx, who was trying to do the world some good, than the party of the charlatan monk Rasputin, which the Republicans have become. Some people might say that if God wants to be involved in committee proceedings, he’s welcome to sign up as a witness. But the Democrats in charge just said there was a “mistake.”
Donald Trump knows how to play to his base. They turned out in droves to support him in 2016, and may very well continue to do so, because he knows how to keep them fired up. The Democrats, though, are too scared of their own shadows to follow suit, or even to think deeply about what their base really is. For several years now, we “nones” have been the single largest religious group within the Democratic Party. I strongly suspect that if you look hard at who the activists are and who the contributors are, you’d find the pattern even more pronounced. Looking to the future, the predominance of no religious affiliation is far greater among the young than the old. So how do the Democrats treat us? Like the backbone and future of the party that we are? Nope. They instantly characterize a tiny nod in our direction as a “mistake,” then flee the scene.
As religious neutrality issues go, this one is small potatoes. Only a handful of people ever testify before this committee, and I doubt anyone would get in trouble for declining in good conscience to say the four words in question. It’s especially ironic that the words, which constitute a lie for many of us, are embedded in a solemn promise to testify “nothing but the truth.” But this Democratic kowtow follows closely on the heels of adding yet another stone to the tower of religious privilege, in the form of a new rule allowing members to wear religious—but not nonreligious—headwear in the House chamber. I’d been looking forward to seeing some of Rep. Frederica Wilson’s hats in the chamber, or maybe some MAGA hats on the other side of the aisle. But the party that gave us RFRA said no, only religious citizens get that right, not the rest of us.
Every little choice government makes in favor of the God industry serves to entrench it. Every little slight the government delivers to nonbelievers reminds us that we’re unwanted– except for our taxes, which are badly needed to help prop up shrinking religious communities.
I voted for an alternative to the Democratic nominee in 2016 because of the party’s shabby treatment of nonbelievers, especially those backhanded “apologies” for leaked emails vilifying atheists. What we’ve seen from the first month of Democratic ascendancy in the House makes it look like the party doesn’t want my vote or my donations this time either. How about you? Are you one who says “OK, kick me again, because it’s all for the greater good” or are you with me in the “Call me back when you’re ready to treat me like a full-blown human” camp?