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I have followed, with equal measures of interest and dismay, the impassioned exchange in these pages with regard to the "In God We Trust" controversy. Neither side has risen above the level of platitude; nor do these noisy advocates make any effort to understand their adversaries, but merely repeat an ineffectively doctrinal point-of-view.

Before commenting on the failure of the debate more fully, let me establish my position in advance. I believe that schools - as well as all public institutions - should be, and must be, religiously neutral. The glory of a free society is that we can manifest our religious beliefs and obsessions at home or in houses of worship without intrusion or pressure. There are, in another words, ample and tax-exempt, I might point out - opportunities for both observance and evangelizing. However, the moment this crosses the threshold of a school (or courthouse, in my view) we are allowing religion to muscle in where it does not belong, a noxious kind of religious profiling. Those who believe devoutly must surely feel that God is strong enough that he can survive just fine without the need to colonize every nook and cranny of American life.

Some of us trust in God, others do not, and the latter should not feel tha the schoolhouse or courthouse is tilted toward those who do - even in the most subtle of ways. I do not buy the weasel argument that the motto is there for "educational" purposes; I wouldn't want to see a large portion of the fundamental American spirit undermined by tortured reliance on a footnote, asterisk or fine print. Justice Brandeis famously noted, in the landmark Supreme Court decision on privacy, that we all have a basic right to be "left alone." The retailing of religion is, in my view, clearly at odds with that dictum.

America has survived and prospered because of a fortuitous combination and ongoing refinement of a shared belief system that is, in many ways, founded on distrust. Distrust of self-aggrandizement, cant, hypocrisy, fundamentalism, humorousness, rigidity. Distrust of what authority - here and elsewhere - suggests is the truth. I would much rather see our students be greeted each day by a reminder of that which needs to be questioned than any other single message.

None of this is to say that I find the language "In God We Trust" to be distasteful. It is, at its best, a kind of American folklore, a syntactical talisman - not unlike "God Bless America" - that has worked its way into our national memory and national poetry. We have, as a diverse nation, arrived at a wonderfully, sophisticated, nuanced, and commonsensical understanding of the role of religion in American life. There have been any number of runs at religiosity in American history, but in the long run our civic intelligence has marginalized them.

America is a complex machinery. When a Sikh takes out a dollar bill to buy a newspaper at a newsstand run by a Muslim, each recognizes - intuitively and implicitly - that the message of "In God We Trust," though referring to a different God than their own, is not offensive, but a gentle and metaphorical link to what some like to call a "supreme unitary being." It is also relic of a what was, in general, a less secular time. (I am also constrained to point out that on each denomination of our currency, the dollar amount - be it one, five or ten - is much larger than the motto; the amount of real estate a testimony to our true values). Although I understand that there may be those who would seek to expunge the language from our currency, I find that to be a kind of historical revisionism - while, on the other hand, removing the Confederate flag form the statehouses where it flies is an historical necessity.

When you strip "In God We Trust" off the currency, though, for clearly religious and political purposes - and turn it into a billboard, then the metaphor, the American narrative signifier, becomes an unwelcome and un-American intrusion.

This is what both sides fail to understand. The argument is more about context than content. Those opposing the infamous Port Washington plaques see the language itself as a violation of church and state, which is an over-simplification. We live, happily and comfortably, with many violations of this bifurcation - from the tax-free nature of religious institutions, to stirring events like the multidenominational service at our National Cathedral (yes, we have a National Cathedral) in memory of those fallen in the Sept. 11 tragedy.

Those pushing for the plaque attack fail to realize that any opposition to it should be sufficient opposition to it. To insist on shoving religion down somebody's throat is as far from American principles as one can get.

Damage will be done if the plaques are installed but it will not be fatal. What does trouble me, though, about our national prognosis is the inability of both sides - including the anti-intellectual, ham-handed, historically unmoored majority on the school board - to appreciate the complexity of the situation, rather than banging home the one-dimensional purity of the debate.

Adam Hanft


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