An atheist seminar in Fort Worth drew a capacity crowd, evidence that Texas’ growing nonreligious population is finding its political voice here in the Bible Belt.
The protester’s T-shirt read “REPENT or PERISH”; his sign said, “There are no atheists in HELL.” He and a few other fundamentalists were gathered at the Fort Worth Botanic Garden on July 14 to protest an “educational seminar” sponsored by Metroplex Atheists (MA). The focus of the seminar: to speak out against the national motto, “In God We Trust” (IGWT).
Whatever the atheist population in Hades, there were plenty at the Sunday afternoon seminar. A diverse and enthusiastic crowd of around 200 showed up—atheists, agnostics, secularists, and some Christian supporters—far exceeding organizers’ expectations. Many attendees were drawn by Metroplex Atheists’ controversial publicity campaign, in which bright yellow banners declaring “In NO God We Trust” appeared on light posts around downtown Fort Worth earlier this month. The strong turnout suggests the religiously unaffiliated, who now account for nearly one in five Texans, are coming off the sidelines and making their voices heard in a state long dominated by conservative Christians.
Speakers including the group’s president, Courtney Stewart, and activist Aron Ra discussed the “exclusionary and divisive nature” of IGWT. Stewart said the motto “makes people think we [nonbelievers] don’t have a place in the democracy.” It also gives the false impression that America is a Christian nation, she said. She advocates replacing IGWT with the original, unofficial motto, E Pluribus Unum (“Out of many, one”), which appears on some currency. “It includes the perspectives of everyone instead of just Christianity,” she said.
Stewart, a native Texan, told the audience she’d received an email saying that if she objects to the motto she “should leave, go back to your country.” That got a big laugh from the audience. But Stewart added, “That’s the most awful thing about the motto. It makes people think that [we atheists] are not here … [that] we’re not Americans … My statement to that is, ‘We are here.’”
The banner campaign made their stubborn presence clear, to the dismay of some Christians. Given the placement and prominence of the banners, complaints poured in to city officials. Several banners were vandalized. “I can’t believe the city of Fort Worth is allowing this downtown,” one person noted on Facebook. “The signs offend me and should to [sic] everyone that has strong faith.” An Arkansas legislator lamented that Fort Worth “has been taken advantage of by an atheist group that seeks to cause controversy by demeaning our wonderful U.S. National Motto.” However, city officials responded that the banners did not violate current policy, which permits nonprofit groups to post banners promoting special events open to the public or of interest to the community. Mayor Betsy Price tweeted that though she was “appalled” by the message, it was important to respect freedom of speech.
Former Metroplex Atheists president Randy Word, who spearheaded the campaign, explained the thinking behind it. “This ‘In God We Trust’ thing is being shoved down our throats all over the country now,” he said. “We should do something to address that.”
Indeed, in recent years conservative Christian activists and lawmakers have pushed for the motto’s widespread display in official settings—even on police squad cars. Word cited a local example, the 2014 decision by former tax assessor and current U.S. Congressman Ron Wright to print IGWT on—of all places—Tarrant County property tax statements and stationery.
Ra pointed to Project Blitz, a nationwide effort to flood state legislatures with bills promoting the conservative Christian agenda, including IGWT. One model bill in the Blitz legislative playbook would require the motto to be “prominently displayed” in public school classrooms and government buildings. (Similar bills, SB 679 and HB 2216, were filed in this year’s Texas legislative session; both died in committee.) Another bill would allow citizens to buy IGWT license plates—“moving billboards,” the playbook calls them. Texas has sold such plates since 2017.
Whatever the motivation, the banner campaign is the latest indication that Texas’ religiously unaffiliated are becoming more politically active. Last year the Secular Democratic Caucus held its second-ever meeting at the state party convention. A standing-room-only audience heard candidates press for greater recognition of, and outreach to, nonreligious voters.
That’s a smart strategy, given the shifting demographics. While the Christian share of the national population has been dropping, the percentage of religiously unaffiliated has risen sharply, especially among younger adults. Thirty-five percent of religiously unaffiliated Americans are under age 30, and 37 percent are between 30 and 49. Texas largely mirrors these national trends.
Elizabeth Oldmixon, American politics professor at the University of North Texas, told the Observer that though Democrats nationally may be losing ground among religiously unaffiliated voters (they’re trending toward the political center), that’s not true in Texas. “Here, the unaffiliated are increasingly younger and more liberal than the population as a whole,” she said. “As long as there is a mechanism for organizing these voters”—like the Secular Democratic Caucus—“they are likely to move the electoral needle in Texas to the left.”
The new religious—and nonreligious—landscape could also stymie Christian Right causes like IGWT. Recent polling shows one-third of Americans don’t believe in the biblical God (though they do believe in “some other higher power or spiritual force”). One in 10 don’t believe in any higher power at all.
This is a far cry from the 1950s, when the motto was adopted, largely as a way to distinguish the United States from “godless Soviet communism.” Back then, well over 90 percent of Americans were either Christians or Jews. These days, the religiously unaffiliated and other faiths account for nearly a quarter of the population.
So Metroplex Atheists’ anti-IGWT campaign raises a question worth asking. If “In God We Trust” reflected a national consensus in the days of Joe McCarthy and Leave It to Beaver, does it today? Or is it a relic, one that no longer represents a more diverse nation—and a more diverse Texas?
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