When state lawmakers return to Frankfort and the games reconvene in January, they will turn their backs on “God” in committee rooms. According to an amendment sponsored by Republican Sen. Albert Robinson Jr. of Laurel County and signed into law by the governor on April 10, “The Legislative Research Commission shall display the national motto ‘In God We Trust’ directly above and behind the chairman or chairwoman in each committee room used by members of the General Assembly in the Capitol and Capitol Annex.”
Shortly after the amendment cleared the Senate in late March, Robinson told the Lexington Herald-Leader his intent was “to show the same respect in the committee rooms that we do in the chambers.” In 2006, the motto was engraved on the majestic walls behind the daises in the state’s House and Senate. But ruffled curtains hang behind those daises. Plastic renditions of the state seal hang on (and sometimes fall off) some of them, so it’s difficult to imagine how the time-honored motto might be so honored on cloth as it is in granite or marble.
And then there’s the question of whether superficial displays are honorable at all. President Teddy Roosevelt decried the sudden appearance of the motto on gold coinage in a letter published in the Nov. 14, 1907, edition of The New York Times:
“To use it in any kindred manner not only does no good, but does positive harm, and is in effect irreverence, which comes dangerously close to sacrilege. A beautiful and solemn sentence such as this one should be treated and uttered only with that fine reverence which necessarily implies a certain exaltation of spirit. … Any use which tends to cheapen it … is from every standpoint profoundly to be regretted. It is a motto which it is, indeed, well to have been inscribed on our great National monuments, on our temples of justice, in our legislative halls, and in buildings such as those at West Point and Annapolis — in short, wherever it will tend to arouse and inspire a lofty emotion in those who look thereon.”
Surely Teddy would disapprove of the motto appended, as an afterthought, to a committee room curtain — or etched into the wood veneer or drywall behind it.
In a thoughtful, witty guest commentary published in these pages six years ago, Pastor Joe Phelps of Highland Baptist Church raised questions related to Kentucky’s offering of “In God We Trust” license plates. “Did God ask for this ad campaign? Or is God really the focus at all? … Who is the ‘we’ in the phrase? … What does it mean to say we trust in God? … Will … the declaration of trust” result “in fewer accidents or tickets? … Trust in God calls for a life of humble study, reflection, selflessness, examination of everything — including what we’re going to do about the invisible fumes emanating just a few feet away from any ‘In God We Trust’ license plate.”
Phelps concluded by opining, “It’s complicated to trust in God. It’s even more complicated for a government to promote a motto like ‘In God We Trust.’ Better to leave this task to faith communities.”
Robinson’s legislative mandate is complicated by his unwillingness to disclose who asked him to sponsor it. Consequently, it remains unclear whether by accident or design it promotes In God We Trust, an ultraconservative national group infamous for its discredited “Saving Religion in America” push poll. “It is designed to gauge just how scared ordinary religious Americans are of the federal government” and President Barack Obama, according to the organization’s website. “This survey is a tool we use to warn them and then measure how concerned people are about what is happening to our country.” At least InGodWeTrust.org is somewhat honest about its subterfuge.
Kentuckians should be more concerned about what’s happening to our commonwealth. At the “God”-less end of the 2000 session, Robinson inserted into a retirement bill a cryptic three-line amendment that proposed to double legislators’ pensions. More than three years later, the Kentucky Supreme Court unanimously struck it down, calling it “deliberately surreptitious,” “intentionally incomprehensible” and unconstitutionally “unintelligible.”
Even so, the pension crisis persists to the level that our state motto (“United We Stand, Divided We Fall”) might just as well be “In Unfunded Liabilities We Trust.”
May the LRC deliver Robinson’s latest brainchild in proportion to its wisdom — in words small enough to fit inside a fortune cookie.