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While the U.S. is the most churchgoing nation in Christendom, Bible Belt Kentucky is among the most churchgoing American states.

Kentucky Prayer Caucus

Woe betide any atheist or agnostic who dares run for public office. They'd have a tough row to hoe even in "Liberal Louisville," our only real city.

Right-wing, evangelical white Protestants dominate Kentucky society and politics, especially in rural areas, which make up most of the state. Christians of the you-can't-be-a-liberal-and-love-Jesus persuasion never tire of swinging sledgehammers at the constitutional wall of separation between church and state, notably where it shields our public schools.

A virtual Republican front group called the Kentucky Prayer Caucus is pushing a pair of bills in the state House of Representatives that would require “In God We Trust” to be posted inside every public schoolhouse.

A virtual Republican front group called the Kentucky Prayer Caucus is pushing a pair of bills in the state House of Representatives that would require “In God We Trust” to be posted inside every public schoolhouse. Two Republicans are sponsoring one measure; the duo and nine other GOP lawmakers are behind the other one.

“The Freedom From Religion Foundation is mobilizing to stop the bills, so let’s boldly declare our support for 'In God We Trust'!” pleads an email sent to voters by the two state directors of the Congressional Prayer Caucus Foundation, of which the Bluegrass State Caucus is part.

The emails urge recipients to "please contact your representative to show your support," pray for the measures to pass and forward the emails to family and friends so they might seek the Almighty's imprimatur on the bills.

The foundation, according its website, aims to “protect religious freedom, preserve America’s Judeo-Christian heritage and promote prayer.” (And advance GOP fortunes.)

Safeguard "religious freedom" from whom? The foundation is erecting a straw man in the state where I've lived all my 69 years.

I'd bet most Kentuckians have never heard of The Freedom from Religion FoundationBut go to their website. The group isn't out to destroy religion. Rather, it "works as an umbrella for those who are free from religion and are committed to the cherished principle of separation of state and church."

Okay, if the FFRF were widely known in Kentucky, it would be about as popular as a wet dog at a wedding in most places outside Louisville and maybe Lexington, our second-largest urban area.

Naturally, the emails fail to mention that at least some Kentucky Christians strongly support separation of church and state oppose the legislation. They also wonder with all the problems facing the state why lawmakers are wasting their time on the "In God We Trust Bills." (It's called pandering.)

Anyway, critics of the bills liken them to the legendary camel's schnozz under the tent.

"This bill is part of a larger effort called ‘Project Blitz,’ an effort by the Christian Right to enact laws favoring their policies at the state level,” Baptist Bruce Maples wrote in Forward Kentucky, his liberal-leaning Louisville website. “Project Blitz has been called 'ALEC for the Christian Right,' and includes a 116-page 'playbook' of model bills and talking points.”

Added Maples, “The ‘In God We Trust’ bill (IGWT) is one of 20 model bills included in the Project Blitz playbook. Similar bills have been, and are being, filed all over the country. Even though seemingly innocuous, the bills are being used to lay a groundwork for talking about the United States as ‘a Christian nation’ and to prepare the way for other bills, including variations on the theme of ‘religious freedom’ as justification for discrimination, such as anti-LGBT adoption laws.”

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Anyway, Kentucky sociologist David Nickell agrees that conservative white Christians could hardly be more powerful in our state. Yet he said they often protest that they're being persecuted by "secularists" for their beliefs. "It's like part of their identity."

Nickell, who teaches sociology and philosophy at West Kentucky Community and Technology College in Paducah, said dominant groups by nature can't be persecuted. (But they often persecute weaker groups.)

In any event, "In God We Trust" hardly goes back to the beginning of American history. It appeared on coins as early as the Civil War. But it didn’t become the official national motto until the 1950s when “under God” also was added to the Pledge of Allegiance. Both were byproducts of the cold war against atheistic communism.

Most of America’s founders were deists; not many were orthodox Christians. Whatever else they disagreed on, they wanted a constitution that parted religion and government.

Most Americans who are religious are Christians, but America isn't a Christian nation, a point President John Adams, a Unitarian, hammered home: “The government of the United States is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion.”

Adams' argument would be dismissed as heresy in many churches in Kentucky.

Nickell likened evangelicals to supporters of President Trump's border wall. (Not coincidentally, white evangelicals are among the most loyal supporters of the president.) "It is absolutely useless to point out to these people that the number of people coming across the border is the lowest it's been in decades, but they want to believe it's a crisis."

Groups like the Prayer Caucus claim there's been a "crisis" in public schools since the Supreme Court "banned prayer from the classroom."

The high court did no such thing. It ruled (6-1) in Engle v. Vitale (1962) that school-sponsored prayer violated the First Amendment's establishment clause.

"As long as there are history tests, there will be prayer in school," I used to tell my students.

“I have students tell me all the time that you can’t even pray in schools," Nickell said. "I tell them absolutely you can pray in school all you want to—you can have prayer circles or anything else. You just can't force everyone else to pray and you cannot claim you are being persecuted just because you're not allowed to impose your ideas on everybody else.”

He said having a common enemy—from liberals and labor unions to The Freedom From Religion Foundation and LGBTQ rights groups--unites fundamentalists of all stripes—religious, political, economic, whatever.

When there is no real threat to them, Nickell said, "[fundamentalists]...have to manufacture one. You manufacture a threat to hold the people together and build support."

Nickell conceded that the "In God We Trust" legislation will probably pass. Gov. Matt Bevin is a Republican and a born-again Christian. The GOP holds supermajorities in both Houses.

Berry Craig

But Nickell suspects—and I do, too—that some Democrats in rural areas are scared not to vote for the bills, too. Seat preservation is the first law of legislators.

Berry Craig