Trusting in God in Bakersfield

Earlier this week, the Kern County (CA) High School voted to place posters in all the district’s classrooms, offices, and libraries to promote “Civic Education.” The posters, with representations of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and historical explanations of the two national mottos “E Pluribus Unum” and “In God We Trust,” will cost $12,000.

It was a compromise decision after a couple of weeks of debate and clarification following Trustee Chad Vegas‘ original proposal. Vegas, pastor of a conservative evangelical congregation in Bakersfield, had been approached by Jacquie Sullivan, Bakersfield City Councilwoman and founder of “In God We Trust- America, Inc.,” a non-profit organization committed to promoting the display of the motto “In God We Trust” by public agencies. In 2002, she successfully convinced the Bakersfield City Council to display the motto in the council chambers.

Vegas’ original plan was to use posters provided by In God We Trust- America showing the motto emblazoned on a background of the American flag. But community reaction to what was an obvious blurring of the separation of church and state led to the compromise, which places the motto into a wider context and severs the connection to Sullivan’s organization.

The final compromise seems to be generic enough to satisfy the letter of the law (though one might well question whether spending $12,000 for the posters is the best use of curriculum money). One unexpected fallout of the vote was the resignation of Rev. Chuck Cournyea as president of the Interfaith Alliance of Kern County. He was distressed that those in the religious community who opposed the resolution did not show up or speak. He declared, “There are those in this community who have been elected to serve all its citizens, but have chosen to sell their souls for personal gain to the majority of voters who wish to have a particular ‘Christian’ agenda advanced in Kern County. . . and they have found a way to do just that — make God a historical, political piece of U.S. history.”

It is clear that the confusion between religious faith and patriotic commitment is alive and well in Bakersfield (and certainly not only there). “We are encouraging patriotism,” said Jacquie Sullivan, “Patriotism to me is love of God.”

More than a few patriots would disagree with you there, Councilwoman.

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