When you have read as many mainstream news stories about church-state conflicts as I have, the minute you spot another one your mind begins asking a familiar litany of questions.
Like this one: Will the reporters find anyone to interview on the cultural left, other than an expert linked to the omnipresent Americans United for Separation of Church and State?
I mean, you know that someone from the Freedom From Religion Foundation will appear in the article. This is usually the group that is responding to something that someone in the Midwest or the Bible Belt has done to initiate the conflict that is the hook for the story. So you know that the journalists will have talked -- as they should -- with Annie Laurie Gaylor of the foundation.
But why settle for these two groups over and over, especially when dealing with conflicts in the Bible Belt? Why not seek out church-state professionals who live and work in that region?
This leads to the next question: Who will the journalists from the elite Northeast seek out, when researching the story, to serve as expert voices for the other side, for the cultural conservatives involved in this story? I mean, if journalists doing a story of this kind need to talk to the Freedom From Religion Foundation (and they do) and they need to talk to experts on the church-state left (and they do), then who will they find to serve as experts on the other side, on the cultural right?
News flash! There are plenty of academics and lawyers now who work on what could be called the church-state right. There are even folks in think tanks that are in the middle (#gasp). If journalists are going to talk to the groups on the left (as they should), then they also need to talk to experts on the other side. That would be the journalistic thing to do.
This brings us to rural Georgia (you don't get more Bible Belt than that), where representatives of The New York Times (you don't get more elite Northeast than that) are trying to figure out why the locals -- police in this case -- keep wanting to pull God into public life. Here's the top of the story:
CEDARTOWN, Ga. -- The chief deputy to Sheriff Johnny Moats of Polk County appeared in an office doorway one morning this month with a message he knew would delight his boss: Another Georgia lawman had heeded Sheriff Moats’s suggestion to add “In God We Trust” decals to official vehicles.
It was a small part of what has emerged as a big moment for the national motto, which has long been cherished by many Christians, criticized by those who say it infringes on the separation of church and state, overlooked by plenty and safeguarded by courts. In recent months, dozens of Southern and Midwestern law enforcement agencies have added the axiom to squad cars, usually to the vexation of vocal, often distant critics, and at the personal expense of sheriffs, police chiefs or rank-and-file employees.
“If it’s on my money and it’s on the state flag, I can put it on a patrol car,” said Sheriff Moats, who wrote to Georgia’s sheriffs this year to promote the motto’s placement on law enforcement vehicles. “Just about every single day, I have another sheriff calling and saying, ‘I’ve done it’ or ‘Can you send me a picture of your patrol car?’ ”
This leads to the usual list of vague attributions as the Times team describes the conflict, phrases such as "some officials content" and "but critics worry."
Pretty soon, Gaylor shows up (this is her job) as the initiator of the conflict caused by these threatening decals. In this case, the problem is that some police think that linking their taxpayer-funded work to God -- by quoting the national motto -- will be seen as a positive, trust-building gesture by most of the local taxpayers in these zip codes.
In response, the Times team quotes Gaylor (as it should) saying the magic "t-word."
“This motto has nothing to do with the problem of police forces’ shooting people, but it’s a great way to divert attention away from that and wrap yourself in a mantle of piety so that you’re above criticism,” said Annie Laurie Gaylor, a co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, a Wisconsin-based group that has demanded that law enforcement officials stop exhibiting the motto. “The idea of aligning the police force with God is kind of scary. That’s the first thing you’d expect to see in a theocracy.”
The locals, of course, are not impressed -- which is kind of the point.
Let me add a trigger warning at this point, as I illustrate this. The following paragraph from this report contains the kind of stereotypical Times language about the Bible Belt that may offend sensitive Southerners who tend to be traumatized then encountering attitudes such as those captured in that classic New Yorker cover image known as "View of the World from 9th Avenue."
Protests and warnings from critics like Ms. Gaylor also seem to be of little concern in places like Polk County, a few minutes from the Alabama border, where about 41,000 people live in a rural area dotted with churches, Confederate battle flags and fried chicken restaurants. The small atrium of Sheriff Moats’s building features a pair of murals painted by inmates, including one of the Ten Commandments on tablets that are more than six cinder blocks tall. A painted golden banner reading “In God We Trust” hangs above them.
Sooner or later, one of the usual suspects on the church-state left shows up to deliver an expert opinion on this subject. Yes, this expert has ties to Americans United for the Separation of Church and State. The whole problem, you see, is that the national motto is the national motto, which implies that it might be acceptable to quote it until Congress (or U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy) decides to edit or erase the national motto.
In other words, this reign of terror may continue (complete with another Bible Belt food reference or two):
“The motto is pretty much immunized from constitutional challenge unless you can show really bad intent,” said Steven K. Green, a law professor at Willamette University and former legal director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. “The likelihood of success is minimal. The likelihood of creating worse precedent is actually greater.”
So for now, Sheriff Moats said, there is little reason or incentive for him to abandon the stickers. When he stopped at Gran-Gran’s here one afternoon for a lunch of hamburger steak and banana pudding, customer after customer expressed support. One man asked whether Sheriff Moats happened to have with him any of the related “In God We Trust” stickers that have been sold at his office for $2 each. (He did, in his patrol car.)
So, back to the basic journalistic question that I raised at the top of this post: Who did the Times team turn to as an academic and legal expert to give authoritative insights on behalf of the cultural and legal right in this story? Surely the nation's most powerful newsroom allowed someone to speak for the other side, rather than settling for the legal opinions of county sheriffs?
The answer can be found by clicking on the video shown below and listening carefully. Trigger warning: This is another reference to life in the American South.