(RNS) — One week after the Parkland school massacre, Florida’s House of Representatives voted 97-10 to pass a measure requiring every school in the state to display the motto “In God We Trust.” Outside stood about 100 students, chanting for stricter gun laws. The day before, when the students were inside, watching from the gallery, the House had voted 71-36 to kill a potential bill to ban assault weapons and large-capacity ammunition magazines. The lawmakers refused even to bring it to the floor for debate.
Days later, however, Florida’s governor signed a bill March 9 that the Legislature had narrowly approved to create new restrictions on firearm sales and, with a nod to the National Rifle Association, allow some teachers and school staff to carry concealed weapons after special training. The bill does not outlaw assault weapons and large-scale magazines nor does it require background checks on all gun transactions, but it is still a significant step.
In spite of the multimillions the NRA spends on campaigns and lobbying, the students are making headway. These are the first gun restrictions endorsed by Florida’s Republicans since they took control of the Legislature in 1996. Clearly they’d rather leave the job to the Almighty and remind schools that they should do the same — “thoughts and prayers” — plus a shoutout to the "God We Trust." But the students’ heartfelt eloquence forced the lawmakers to act.
The number of atheists in Generation Z (those born between 1999 and 2015) is already double that of the U.S. adult population, according to a January 2018 study by the Barna Group. You don’t have to be clairvoyant to predict that those “In God We Trust” signs will drive more Florida students into the nonbelievers’ camp. After all, depending on a God who never seems to act is what’s been killing their friends and endangering their own lives. Why not depend on common sense, valid research and the concern they have for one another instead? It seems to be working better.
Trusting God while attempting to ignore reality — gun violence, climate change, child poverty — has been a growing pattern for our legislators, especially lately. It may work fine for them, their families and especially their wallets, but it never seems to turn out well for Gen Z, or most of the rest of us either. The hefty tax cuts Congress recently passed will saddle our kids with $1.5 trillion in additional future debt, while the majority of the benefits go to corporations and the wealthy.
“God made Republicans to cut taxes,” said Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., after Congress passed the country's new tax bill. Apparently God also made them to cut Medicaid, anti-poverty programs, education support, biomedical research and other programs that help and protect God’s children. Funds to help low-income Gen Z kids pay for college? Sorry, we can’t afford them anymore because of the tax cuts. Unfortunately, the Almighty isn’t stepping in to make up the difference. Studies show that more than half of the needy kids who make it to college don’t graduate without aid. Their struggle to survive sabotages their education, and with it their chance to enter the middle class. Along with the lives they hoped for, a great human resource is wasted — but money is saved, for those already at the top.
It seems the God in whom Cole and his fellow legislators trust is the Almighty ... Dollar. Maybe the rest of us, instead of depending on their capitalized God, should look to god with a small “g”— to that still small voice that calls us to care for others beyond “me and mine”; to the inner strength that enables us to refute the NRA’s outrageous claims; to that impulse that inspires us to seek the common good, no matter what our religion or nonreligion happens to be; and to that feeling of love and awe that makes us grateful.
This is what the incredible kids who survived the Parkland school massacre are doing: channeling their grief and love and rage for themselves and their own into a fight for others too, for the common good of this nation. And it’s working. In just three weeks, they’ve prompted numerous national businesses to act, and now this unprecedented step by Florida lawmakers. Others have joined them and they are not stopping there. In statehouses and marches across the nation, they are fighting on. For that, we should all be grateful.
(C.S. Pearce is currently writing “god with a small ‘g’” — working title — with theology professor Philip Clayton. Her last book was "This We Believe: The Christian Case for Gay Civil Rights." The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)