'In God We Trust' in schools? Why not 'Mind Your Business'?

Christopher Harris

Generally, I don't like when government does anything. Unless it's undoing laws or regulations that are already on the booksw -- they can do that as much as they want. But actually doing stuff? That usually only leads to more harm than good.

Yet when government wastes its time doing something symbolic and inconsequential, one has to ask -- why? Why waste time on that? Why waste taxpayer money compensating lawmakers for being in session to screw around making laws that have no effect at all?

Such was the case this week when I learned of a bill the Kentucky House of Representatives passed Wednesday, House Bill 46, that would require public schools to display the national motto in a prominent location beginning with the 2019-20 school year, according to the Associated Press, which added that there are no penalties if schools don't comply, but someone could sue to force them to do it.

And I'm like ... um. Okay. But why?

What does putting that motto in a visible place really accomplish? Is it supposed to spur schoolkids on to live Godly lives? To be inspirational?

I don't know that kids pay attention to that kind of thing anyway. I've been in schools where I'd see things along the lines of, "Through these halls walk the leaders of tomorrow." Except, I don't know about you, but I would have just ignored or laughed at something like that when I was in school. I didn't want to be inspired to be a leader. I wanted to know more about that cute girl we met at the bowling alley one weekend, or if there was a chance I could get out of homework for a night or two. When I see "Live, Laugh, Love" displayed in a house, it doesn't make me want to live, laugh, or love. None of the three. Sorry.

A lot of people have objections to this bill on "church and state" grounds. I get that. I'm certainly not in favor of a national establishment of religion. But for me, that's not the big issue. The same reason this idea is ineffectual in the first place renders it benign as an offense -- it asks no action or duty of those who see it, it's easy to ignore. If you don't agree with it, it's easy to just not pay attention to it, the same way I did any "school spirit" posters in high school. If an atheist can handle a dollar bill that says "In God We Trust" on it without bursting into flames, I think they'll survive this.

No, my objection is just this: Why are lawmakers spending their time (that we're paying for) coming up with stuff like this? Why place an extra burden on schools that, at the very least, puts them out the cost of creating a display, and at worst, dealing with potential litigation? Don't our schools have enough to worry about that we want to raise the degree of difficulty on them with this too? Who does it help? What does it accomplish?

(We here in Pulaski County are well aware of what happens when you insist on putting up a completely symbolic, non-practical display of religious significance -- say, the Ten Commandments -- that results in putting a pretty heavy stack of cash as a result of legal battles. It's not fun. I don't recommend it.)

What does it accomplish? How about virtue signaling?

In the age of social justice being a political hot-button issue maybe more than ever before, we have developed a term called "virtue signaling," which is most typically applied by those of a more conservative bent to those more on the left. Where a person or an organization makes a point of supporting a particular social justice cause to win favor among others who think the same way, and in many cases serve as cultural gatekeepers that can make or break careers. It's expressing a popular viewpoint so as to make sure you aren't ostracized for thinking differently.

There's a valid complaint against this. It's obnoxious behavior. It's perfectly fine if you believe something, but to make sure people know you do so they'll know you're "woke" is pretty lame. It's also something I'm probably guilty of myself, at least through omission. Most of my social set is more liberal, and I don't wish to alienate my friends. I could probably write a column a day about some ridiculous thing Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has said or done, but I haven't penned anything like that so far; meanwhile, here I am, taking issue with an action by the Republican supporters of this Kentucky legislation. So I get the whole "virtue signaling" thing, why someone would want to do it, even though I also know why you shouldn't.

But here's the thing: Conservatives can be guilty of virtue signaling too. And that's what this is. It's Republican politicians catering to a religious base by showing how devout they are. And it's just as transparent as when liberals do it.

And frankly, as a Christian, that bothers me. My faith is important to me; politics, I find scuzzy and undignified. To take my faith and use it as a political bargaining chip involving an essentially meaningless gesture is kind of offensive. (I believe Jesus felt much the same way about religious virtue signaling; He wasn't too fond of people who made big public displays out of their prayers, but instead encouraged believers to talk to God in private. He preferred that disciples actually express their faith through going out and getting things done.)

According to the Associated Press, one of the bill's sponsors, Republican Rep. Brandon Reed, said the "In God We Trust" motto reflects an essential part of what it means to be an American. Meanwhile, Democratic state Rep. Kelly Flood, who voted against the bill, argued that people are called to be citizens, not comparatively better Christians.

She's not wrong. And that's why if we're going to start throwing around mottos, I'd rather go with the one that should have been on our money in the first place -- if the greatest American to ever live (*cough cough*) had had his way.

"In God We Trust" didn't become the official national motto until 1956, though it did appear on some currency nearly 100 years earlier. Way before that, however, Benjamin Franklin had another saying in mind -- "Mind Your Business."

Now, I'm biased. I'm a big Ben Franklin fan. I find him kind of amazing, actually -- a publisher and writer, scientist and inventor (thank him for your bifocals), diplomat and Founding Father. He founded the University of Pennsylvania, spearheaded the idea for the nation's first zoo, created Philadelphia's first fire department (and the first all-volunteer unit of its kind in the colonies), and even brought the idea of the lending library to America. Somehow, he still found time to have fun, have a personality, and be a voracious flirt. I'm not totally sure the man was human. He was incredible.

Among his many ideas, however, was the motto "Mind Your Business." Franklin designed a coin (oh yeah, he designed his own alphabet too, but it never caught on -- but I digress) called the Fugio cent, a one-cent piece. On it was that motto, one that reflected the individualistic values of the nation's founders. It is believed that given Franklin's love of wordplay, this phrase had double meanings -- both in the sense of "mind your own business," or leave others alone and don't intrude, and of being smart about one's literal business endeavors.

Much like his alphabet, the Fugio cent amounted to one of Franklin's "misses" among all the shots he took -- it pre-dated the ratification of the Constitution, and once that happened, we ended up with currency that said, "E pluribus unum," Latin for, "Out of many, one." That phrase itself eventually gave way as the nation's motto to "In God We Trust" -- but that would take more than a century and a half.

Personally, I like "Mind Your Business." It's good advice. "In God We Trust" is just a declaration and doesn't apply to everyone; "Mind Your Business" is equally applicable to all Americans. In a world where we are increasingly all up in each other's business, trying to change the way other people do things to fit our vision of reality, and using social media to gossip and pry into the lives of others, "Mind Your Business" is just as relevant as it was back in Franklin's day, maybe more so. It certainly fits my own philosophy regarding what America should represent: Live and let live. Tend one's own garden. Do onto others as you would have them do onto you. Reed says "In God We Trust" reflects an essential part of what it means to be an American? Hey, nothing captures the spirit of the original American Dream more than "Mind Your Business."

Come to think of it, you know, maybe a bill having schools put a motto somewhere prominent isn't such a bad idea after all. Just let it be "Mind Your Business." I could accept paying a Fugio cent in taxes for that.

CHRISTOPHER HARRIS is a staff writer for the Commonwealth Journal. You can reach him at charris@somerset-kentucky.com. Follow him on Twitter @charrisatcj.