Stirring up the culture wars in Pierce County

You’d think the Pierce County Council would have more pressing business than inciting another battle in America’s incessant culture wars.

This particular war revolves around the national motto, “In God We Trust.” Councilman Jim McCune has proposed a resolution to have the motto “permanently and prominently displayed” in the council chambers, presumably on a big plaque.

McCune’s protestations to the contrary, this idea didn’t pop out of nowhere. It has a political context, and words get meaning from context. A group of religious conservatives, virtually all conservative Christians, is pushing to have the motto mounted on plaques or otherwise posted in every government meetinghouse in the land.

The federal courts have been fine with the motto as a vague, time-hallowed expression of civic piety. “In God We Trust” has been stamped on American coins since 1864. In 1956, during the Cold War, Congress felt moved to officially adopt the phrase as a retort to the official atheism of the Soviet Union and Red China.

That’s part of history. What’s not part of history is the current campaign to use the motto to squeeze Christian-flavored conservatism into local council chambers – while implying that anyone who objects is lacking in patriotism, Americanism or whatnot.

In this context, the phrase is loaded. Embracing the “In God We Trust” campaign will do nothing but rile up nonbelievers, non-Christians and the very considerable number of Christians who believe faith flourishes best without the tender mercies of the state.

The people promoting the plaques insist that they aren’t trying to insert religion into local government. If that’s true, what’s the point of invoking deity?

We could toy with the notion that the God of the plaques isn’t any particular sort of deity, just a one-size-fits-all generic higher power that anyone – Baptist, Buddhist, Catholic, Wiccan, Hindu, maybe even an atheist – could buy into.

That leads to no end of theological problems, but let’s run with it.

What, exactly, would this higher power do for the County Council? Help it expand the wastewater plant? Retire sewer bonds? Appoint people to the Frederickson Advisory Commission?

Outbid Fife for jail inmates? Prohibit compression brakes on South Prairie Road?

What the plaque would actually do, in practical terms, is insult people who think the Pierce County Council has no business preaching to them.

Since the council is contemplating getting religion, permit us to recommend a verse from Proverbs:

“He that passeth by, and meddleth with strife belonging not to him, is like one that taketh a dog by the ears.”

Or, as moderns would put it, “Let sleeping dogs lie.”