In Religious Police We Trust?
A recent fad among American police departments is to put “In God We Trust” bumper stickers on their vehicles. They justify this religious branding of public property by pointing to the current national motto, which has been in effect for the last 60 years. The revolutionaries who fought to establish this country chose a very different motto: “E Pluribus Unum” – Of Many, One.
The last place anyone should want to see bumper-sticker Christianity is on a law enforcement vehicle.
“In God We Trust” may seem like a harmless statement of faith, but what about people who don’t worship the same way as the apparent official position of the law enforcement agency? Would a Christian expect to receive impartial treatment from a government official who goes around declaring “Allahu Akbar” or “Praise Be to Lord Shiva”?
For millions of people around the world, police actually are religious police. Most notably in Islamic countries, religious police practice the doctrine of hisbah to enforce sharia. Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, a Sunni Muslim, stacked the police and courts with fellow Sunnis often randomly rounded up, tortured, imprisoned and killed Shiite Iraqis. After Saddam’s fall, a majority-Shiite government turned the tables on the Sunni population. The continuing failure of the Iraqi state to provide evenhanded justice to its people regardless of their religion has been cited as one of the main factors leading to the rise of the Islamic State, or ISIS.
Why has the United States, which is filled with diverse Christian denominations, non-Christian sects, and nonreligious people, not experienced bitter conflicts over the state’s role in law enforcement? Because our secular government historically hasn’t sponsored religious police. Now, though, there is increasingly a push from evangelical leaders to impose religious-inspired laws in secular life – a fundamentalist Christian version of sharia.
When the government puts a religious statement on a police car, non-religious people read it as “Those Following the Favored Religion Receive Favorable Treatment.” We expect religious police to be easier on people who share their stated ideology.
Although “In God We Trust” may come across to Christians as a unifying statement, it is a divisive statement when made into government policy. It erodes trust by any religiously non-conforming person, and trust is essential for effective, fair community-based policing. That’s Criminology 101.
The “In God We Trust” motto was passed by conservative members of Congress in 1956 as a reaction to two things they opposed: communism and the civil rights movement. These were two sides of the same coin, as far as they were concerned.
“Of Many, One” was seen as encouraging America’s many racial groups to work together to build an undivided America rather than maintain the racially-segregated status quo. The motto change came just two years after Brown v. Board of Education made public school segregation illegal and one year after Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to sit in the back of a bus. At the same time, Martin Luther King, Jr. was spearheading the Montgomery Bus Boycott. “In God We Trust” was not an improvement on “E Pluribus Unum;” it was a repudiation of the 180-year-old motto and its hopeful vision of a melting pot democracy. We must remember that many police officers in the 1950’s and 1960’s were blatant white supremacists or were implicated in crimes against civil rights activists – which local governments refused to prosecute.
The ideological allies of these racist police officers in Congress implemented “In God We Trust” and now we see some of today’s police departments taking up this blighted banner. Is it any coincidence that the motto has been linked with police departments at a time when we actually have to remind people that “Black Lives Matter” too?
The biggest proponents of “In God We Trust” are far-right conservative Christians. Ignoring its relatively recent adoption, the motto is often cited by them as proof that the United States was founded to promote Christianity or was in some way based on Christian concepts. The motto is a lightning rod in a politicized debate about the essential identity of our country. The choice to post it on police cars is a choice of the primary peace-keepers of our nation to take sides in that debate.
We might as well attach bumper stickers aligning our police departments with a particular political party. Politically partisan police forces are not consistent with American values. The United States is not Russia or Iraq.
Furthermore, “In God We Trust” undermines professional competency. Do police use faith that God will solve crimes, as opposed to the professional application of modern criminology, forensics, and community relations? Why bother with any of that if faith is all we need? Faith in God cannot equate to detective work. “In God We Trust” implies that there is no need for education, work, diligence, skepticism, checks and balances, or internal affairs divisions.
Almost nobody believes that. Most law enforcement officers are dedicated professionals who have invested considerable effort in their education, training, and professional competence. So why slap on a bumper sticker that communicates “we just hope for the best”?
“To protect and serve” is a great police motto. It encourages victims and wary minority communities to engage with and cooperate with the police. It does not imply that some people get better protection and service than others. It is action-oriented and positive. It is heroic and uniting, rather than sectarian and divisive. It reminds police officers of the simple reasons why they do such a dangerous, stressful, and thankless job – to protect and serve.
“E Pluribus Unum” was great in the same way. Its thirteen letters cleverly represented all thirteen of the original colonies that united across the dividing lines of politics, religion and origin. In this modern era of protest and divisiveness, it is easy to think America has lost its ability to cohere as one nation. Politicized police forces seem to be just one more symptom of a government that has ceased to function.
We need not lose hope in the dream of becoming a united people. A simple solution might be found, written in Latin, on a very old coin or hidden on the back of a dollar bill.