I have preached. As a young man, during my high school years in Detroit, I was a boy preacher. Billy Graham was my hero, the black Scofield Bible, a gift from my grandmother was my source of truth. With others of my faith I stood on street corners handing out tracts and speaking to those passing by. This was my mission, my mission to spread the word to those lost without it.
That was years ago. Now, after Wheaton College, the University of Michigan, UCLA and teaching at Bakersfield College, I have come to understand the variety of religions and non-religious philosophies that exist in the world and our community. In my years of teaching philosophy and English at BC, including the Bible as literature, I have encountered many different students with many different beliefs.
I also understand the urge to spread the truth of our beliefs, especially when we regard them as the only path to a good life and to see that as a sacred mission. That sense of mission, I believe, is behind the push to put In God We Trust decals on police cars. Those who support this effort genuinely believe that America has become too secular, has forgotten the importance of belief in God, their God.
And there lies the issue. Under our Constitution, all religious beliefs and non-religious philosophies are to be regarded as equal by the government: national, state and local. Thus government representatives should not officially prefer or reject any particular belief, thus allowing all beliefs to flourish. There are many different religions in our community: Judaism, Hinduism, Sikhism, Christianity, Islam, Native American religions and Buddhism, to name some. Many different views of God, of many Gods and of no God.
Clearly, the concept of God in the motto “In God We Trust” is understood by most to refer to the Christian God; therefore, to require it to be placed on government vehicles is to violate the Constitutional respect and neutrality toward all religions and non-religious beliefs.
Whatever our religion and our religious or non-religious philosophies of life, our Constitution and government gives us freedom of speech, freedom to discuss, write, teach and preach about them. All are respected and protected equally. I know that my students would have been offended if I had told them that one religion was better than the others or that the existential philosophy of Camus was better than religion. BC is a public college, and as a teacher I had a responsibility to respect all beliefs equally. To have put an :In God We Trust” decal on my class syllabus, for example, would, like putting them on police cars, have violated my responsibility as a teacher in a public college and my students’ trust.
Literally and metaphorically, we can stand for our beliefs, as I did those many years ago in Detroit. But we do this on our own, not expecting the government to take our side or any side. That is the beauty of our America.
Jack Hernandez is a retired director of the Norman Levan Center of the Humanities at Bakersfield College.