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Trust Issues

A divisive bill fails in Allegheny County Council, by the grace of God

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If you think about it, "In God We Trust" might be one of the most agnostic sayings of all time. If we trust God that much, after all, why do we feel obliged to say so? Putting that motto on the nation's pocket change is a bit like loaning your friend $5 ... and then calling him 15 times a day, just to tell him how sure you are that he'll pay you back.

It's hard not to see the same sort of insecurity at work over in Allegheny County Council, which last week narrowly rejected a bid to graft a plaque reading "In God We Trust" onto the wall of the Gold Room, where council meetings are held.

The measure's original sponsor, South Hills Republican Sue Means, insisted this wasn't a religious message — that it was just a nod to American tradition. County Council also proposed adding the non-religious "E Pluribus Unum" and the Pennsylvania state motto — which, as every schoolkid knows, is "Virtue, Liberty and Independence." One wonders how the vote would have gone had council added lyrics from James Brown's "Funky President (People It's Bad)"?  As invocations of the American spirit go, you could do a lot worse than, "People, we got to get over before we go under."

Sadly, County Executive Rich Fitzgerald preempted that possibility by announcing plans to veto the bill. Putting up the plaque would be "disrespecting other religions and beliefs by promoting one above all others," Fitzgerald warned.

Council promptly fell into line and rejected the plaque. But Fitzgerald's opposition prompted Pittsburgh Post-Gazette columnist Ruth Ann Dailey, among others, to snipe that "In God We Trust" doesn't actually specify which God we're trusting. Which may be true, but begs the question of why Christians — ranging from Dailey to groups like the Pennsylvania Pastors Network — are the only ones complaining about its absence.

Actually, the plaque really might not be a Christian statement, in the sense that Christ might not have approved of it. Jesus had little patience for those who made a show of their own religiosity. ("[W]hen thou prayest," the Gospel of Matthew quotes him saying, "thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are: for they love to pray standing in the ... corners of the streets.") Sparing us this religious display might be the most Christian thing Allegheny County Council could do.

That's not how plaque supporters see it, of course. The American Family Association of Pennsylvania likened plaque opposition to the 9/11 terror attacks: "We were attacked physically on September 11, 2001," it screeched, "[but] our basic beliefs are also under attack by those who are attempting ... to create a God-less America." Meanwhile in a statement, Pennsylvania Pastors Network President Sam Rohrer accused county officials of "becoming vehicles for persecution of those who understand the role God has had in our nation."

As acts of persecution go, not putting up a plaque falls a little short of, say, the Spanish Inquisition. But at a time when gay marriage is legal even in Pennsylvania, this might be where one strain of Christianity is headed. Deprived of the ability to dictate morality to the rest of us, they demand special recognition for themselves — and feel aggrieved when they don't get it. A plaque seems so important to these Christians, one suspects, because they can see the writing on the wall. The words "In God We Trust" might be benign (unless you're an atheist), but the impetus to put them up is clearly political.

The bright side for Christians is this: If they feel oppressed inside the county's Gold Room, they can always walk outside and go around the corner. There's still a copy of the Ten Commandments bolted alongside the Courthouse's Fifth Avenue entrance. (Unbelievers tried to remove the plaque more than a decade ago, but a federal judge allowed it to remain.) Christians can gaze at it longingly, without even having to pretend to care about the comfort of Hindus or Buddhists.

Of course, by the time December rolls around, the plaque-worshippers might well be left in the cold. But then if that's what God has in store for them, who are we to question it?

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