Sometimes, with all the intercommunity issues, I forget what we’re up against as secular Americans. I was reminded of it last night.
I attended the July 14th Irvine City Council meeting in which a proposed measure to add a display of In God We Trust to the council chambers was deliberated. Irvine is my hometown, the city in which I spent most of my life and where I was educated. Although it severely lacked in economic diversity and bred some of the classist views of which I’ve had to actively divest myself, as far as ethnic and worldview-based diversity and acceptance goes, it was a great place to grow up for a young hijab-wearing Muslim like the one I was. I wanted to speak against the addition of the motto.
No more is the Irvine I knew, it seems. Between Mayor Steven Choi’s heavy-handed Christianity, Mayor Pro Tem Jeff Lalloway’s absurd insistence that Christianity was in need of tolerance from non-Christians, Councilmember Christina Shea’s rather dismal insinuations that atheism leads to child abuse, and the majority of the Councilmembers’ disingenuous insistence that “God” is a secular term (the notable exception being Councilmember Beth Krom, who showed great courage last night in standing up for church-state separation and secular inclusivity), I can’t say that I give the city quite as much credit that way anymore.
Mayor Steven Choi’s Fundamentalism
The council meeting began with a Christian prayer followed by a church performer’s rendition of God Bless America and You Raise Me Up. I refused to stand for the invocation or to clap for the religious music. It felt actively hostile to the non-Christian population (which is a significant percentage in Irvine) that we were expected to respect Christian religious rites. It later came up that it was Mayor Choi who reinstated invocations, which didn’t surprise me in the slightest.
Mayor Pro Tem Jeff Lalloway’s Redefinition of “Tolerance”
According to the ahistorical views of the Mayor Pro Tem, American Christians have always been tolerant and accepting and loving towards non-Christians, and accordingly, deserve to have non-Christians “tolerate” their impositions of their personal religious beliefs, even in secular and public government spaces.
Historically speaking, those who founded the United States hardly were tolerant of anyone not a Protestant Christian. Even certain Protestant branches were discriminated against de facto and de jure throughout American history. It chilled me to witness an elected official forget the darker aspects of our history as a nation in his desire to see a display erected in City Hall. In terms of the modern day, Christians don’t need “tolerance” from non-Christians. They are a majority here in the United States and enjoy all kinds of privilege and special treatment. Looking to the future, promoting Christianity doesn’t accurately reflect the changing demographics of the United States, even here in Orange County.
Councilmember Christina Shea’s Child Abuse Red Herring
Councilmember Shea claimed that we need God in government again because of the increase in awful things going on in the world today, such as child abuse. A more fallacious statement might not exist. There is no link between increased criminality and a lack of religious faith. In fact, many of the most egregious instances of child abuse are indeed justified using religion, from Christianity’s Debi and Michael Pearl’s To Train Up a Child which is a manual for brutal physical abuse to the heartbreakingly large number of rape-related injuries and deaths of Yemeni child brides. I thought that, in a 21st-century relatively progressive and diverse city, our elected officials would be beyond such patently false and frankly unsophisticated arguments as “Atheists have no moral and make child abuse happen.”
Also, the world isn’t worse, we have better morality now and see actions that would have been considered okay a decade or more ago to be reprehensible. To her example, I point out that back in the more religious times of the American past that the Councilmember seems to idealize, abusing children with sexual and other forms of violence was considered a private family matter rather than anything on which society ought to take issue.
God is Secular?
The disingenuousness of declaring that God is secular stinks to high heaven. Very few people who would profess a belief in God would consider that claim to be secular. The statement is more frequently than not tied to a religion. In the case of Mayor Choi, it’s very clear what religion he follows. Outside of last night’s deliberations, I’m sure if you asked him if his belief in God is secular, he’d laugh off the question.
Councilmember Beth Krom’s Brave Stand
The treatment given to Councilmember Krom by the Mayor was frankly deplorable for a politician of her experience level and stature. While others on the pro-motto side were allowed to ramble on without being cut off after their time was up, sometimes doubling their allotted speaking time, Councilmember Krom was promptly cut off by Mayor Choi as soon as her light turned red. The Councilmember was also far better versed in the procedures of city government than Mayor Choi, who stumbled and rambled confusedly towards the end of the proceedings, even arguing against the substitute measure that had already passed.
That measure? To display both American mottoes: “In God We Trust” and “E Pluribus Unum.” I guess that’s something. Frankly, Mayor Choi’s resistance to the allegedly “confusing” nature of having more than one motto was quite satisfying to me. His agenda of pushing his personal religious views was transparent in his insistence that the residents of one of the most affluent, educated, and professional cities in the country would not be able to comprehend more than one motto.
Full disclosure: I went to school with the Krom boys and, as a kid, had met Beth Krom multiple times when she was mayor of Irvine. She has always been a compassionate and genuine person. Afterwards, she greeted me happily (I was frankly surprised she remembered me so clearly) and said it was good to have friends present. I really felt for her.
Rough Transcript of My (Exactly) Two-Minute Comment
My name is Heina Dadabhoy. I was born and raised in this city. I am an alumna of University Park Elementary, Vista Verde, University High, and UC Irvine. I work at one of the many tech firms here in Irvine. Those of us who are born and bred Irvine residents often have our first rebellious thoughts about how “boring” and “beige” Irvine is, something I’ve come to reconsider. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Growing up, the biggest conflict I faced wasn’t the Rancho Middle School students calling me “Vista Nerde.” My father was one of the people involved in starting what would eventually become the Islamic Center of Irvine. The initial plan was to build a mosque in Rancho Santa Margarita. I will never forget the look on my father’s face when he told me that racism and hatred had led those plans to be scrapped. Even more clearly, though, I remember the light in his eyes when he told me that his chosen city, my hometown, my Irvine, had welcomed the proposal. Over the years, the support that local officials — the mayors and City Council Members — showed us meant so much to our fledgling minority community.
The not only tolerant but truly accepting nature of the Irvine that I know shone most brightly after 9/11. Fearing misguided retaliation, my parents kept me home on 9/12. It turned out that they had nothing to worry about. The community continued to welcome and care for us.
Today, I stand before you not as a scarf-wearing member of the Islamic faith, but as someone whose religious persuasion is a lack of religious persuasion. The Irvine I know and love, where I felt safe and comfortable even as a hijab-wearing Muslim post 9/11, would never exclude anyone based on religion, least of all one of its native daughters.
As an atheist, I ask that you vote against sending a message of exclusion and mixing personal faith with our city government. Though not all of us believe in a god in whom we trust — and even those of you who do believe in gods disagree with each other about them — we all stand together as Americans and part of Irvine. Whatever our personal religious beliefs, in the strength of our community we trust. Thank you.