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'In God We Trust' Debate Highlights Role Of Religion In Fresno Politics

Jeffrey Hess/KVPR
Garry Bredefeld on Stage with Jim Franklin

Religion and politics are once again mixing at Fresno City Hall. One councilmember has put forward a plan to add the words ‘In God We Trust’ to the council chamber wall. The result of that vote could be the latest sign that the connection between politics and the city’s religious faithful is still strong.

The Wilson Theater in downtown Fresno comes to life on Sundays when it transforms into the Christian Cornerstone Church, the home of Pastor Jim Franklin. The theme of the sermon this weekend is organizing your life to put Jesus first.

But there is another person in the audience Franklin who wants to share the stage with who has a different, decidedly more political message.

“I thank God for his leadership, he is the city councilmember from district 6 would you welcome Councilmember Garry Bredefeld,” Franklin says waving his arm toward the stage.

Bredefeld takes the stage to rally support for a resolution he has put before the city council: adding ‘In God We Trust’ to the council chamber wall.

Bredefeld says adding the inscription, which is the official motto of the United States, would remind councilmembers they are there to work for the benefit of the citizens.

“This is not about selecting one religion over the other. That is something I would never support. This is about adopting our national motto which simply says ‘In God We Trust' which is for me about faith, values, and patriotism,” Bredefeld says.

To rally support, Bredefeld is taking his message right to the religious community. Cornerstone Church handed out small fliers with every council member’s office phone number and the pastor urged his parishioners to call city hall and press for a vote.

The proposal is sure to draw some opposition, but if it is approved, it could be another sign that Fresno’s churches hold significant political sway.

The initiative excites Cornerstone Church member Ashley Jackson.

“Absolutely, just because that is how this state believes. In God We Trust. [It] goes back to our founding fathers, so absolutely,” Jackson says.

And there are thousands of Fresnans just like her who can flex the accumulated muscle of the religious community. Religion is one issue that in many ways can cuts across party lines. Black churches in southwest Fresno who generally back Democrats are just as much a driving force as the Republican powerhouse mega-churches in Bredefeld’s northeast Fresno district.

Pastor Jim Franklin says if a politician wants to get elected in Fresno, it makes sense to reach out to the churches to look for political support and not be shy about it.

“I think this is a town that has Judeo-Christian values as a whole. I think we have seen that historically. So if I were running for office, then of course I would want to align myself with those values so I could represent them,” Franklin says.

Looking back at the last few mayors, Franklin might have a point. Jim Patterson stills owns a radio station and is active in Christian broadcasting. Alan Autry made and continues to produce Christian-themed movies. He has new one out this year. Ashley Swearengin was seen as less outwardly religious but her husband is a pastor and she was often spotted at religious events.

And current mayor Lee Brand, whose public image is more of a policy wonk and bean-counter than proselytizer, got a big boost during the race in the summer when H. Spees, who is deeply involved in the religious community, endorsed him over Henry Perea. Spees is also now a member of the Brand administration.

Fresno State History Professor Dan Cady says the influence of the churches is a signal that Fresno still considers itself a small town.

"To that end, even if one isn’t particularly religious they have to at least reach out to the church community if they want to have any shot of winning election and being effective because churches might not be where deals get done but it’s often where they start," says Cady.

“Fresno politicians seem to treat the church in the same way that corporate interests treat golf courses. That they all end up at the same place and they have these informal meetings that solidify the different relationships in politics,” Cady says.

But that does make things complicated in a city with a very diverse religious community including Muslims, Jews, Sikhs, and Hmong animists in additions to Protestant and Catholic Christians? Cady says you might not have to wrap yourself in the scripture, but your political future benefits greatly by being involved with a church.

“And there no greater charge, it appears in Fresno politics, than athiest,” Cady says.

There will be some push back against the move.

The Interfaith Alliance of Central California is against it, saying in a written statement the effort is exclusionary and that ‘In God We Trust’ is clearly a reference to a Christian God: 

"One look at the list of Christian voices in support of this proposal offers a “tell” as to the assumed nature and character of God as would be portrayed in that signage."

The group suggested the city council post ‘Justice For All’ instead.

There is also the potential that the move could draw a lawsuit because some claim the motto violates the First Amendment. However, those cases have repeatedly lost in court. More than 100 California cities currently display the motto ‘In God We Trust’ including 15 in Fresno County alone, according to Bakersfield-based In God We Trust-America incorporated.

And if Fresno is the newest, and largest, city in the Central Valley to join that list it will be another sign that religion still plays a foundational role in city politics.

The vote is scheduled for May 11th.

Jeffrey Hess is a reporter and Morning Edition news host for Valley Public Radio. Jeffrey was born and raised in a small town in rural southeast Ohio. After graduating from Otterbein University in Columbus, Ohio with a communications degree, Jeffrey embarked on a radio career. After brief stops at stations in Ohio and Texas, and not so brief stops in Florida and Mississippi, Jeffrey and his new wife Shivon are happy to be part Valley Public Radio.