Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves (R) on Tuesday signed a bill to remove the Confederate battle emblem from the state’s flag. The state’s legislature passed the measure last weekend with an overwhelming vote of 128 to 37. After weeks of nationwide Black Lives Matter protests, decades of organizing by local leaders, and 155 years since losing the Civil War, it was a long-overdue rebuke. The Confederate battle flag represents Mississippi’s fight to uphold slavery during the Civil War and brutal years of white supremacy under Jim Crow laws. More recently the emblem has been adopted as a rallying symbol by white nationalists.

But the measure to change Mississippi’s state flag contains a troubling stipulation: Whatever new design is chosen for the flag, it must contain the words “In God We Trust.” Many lawmakers thought that was the right replacement, like sponsor Sen. Briggs Hopson (R-Issaquena), who noted, “I’m proud to put that on our state flag and I hope it stays there forever.” Others, like Sen. David Parker (R-DeSoto) added that “If we are going to make a change, I feel very strongly that it sends a strong message to … everybody looking and watching this today that we are putting God first.”

Mississippi has finally acknowledged that its white nationalist flag should be discarded, not venerated. But “In God We Trust” is not the right choice.

Mississippi’s decision trades a white nationalist symbol for a Christian nationalist one. Here’s why: “In God We Trust” may seem like a common phrase, but it has also long been a rallying cry for Christian nationalists, who spread the false idea that the U.S. was founded as a “Christian nation” and that the government should favor and support Christianity over all other religions and nonreligion. In 1956, Christian nationalists fought to change the national motto from E pluribus unum (“From many, one”), which had served as an unofficial motto since the early years of the republic, to “In God We Trust” to distinguish the U.S. from the “godless” Communists of the Cold War.

Since then, Christian nationalists have pushed for government displays of “In God We Trust” on everything from license plates and police cars to state seals and courthouses. And of course, requiring “In God We Trust” displays in public schools is a central tenet of Project Blitz, a playbook created by three Christian nationalist groups to pass state bills that undermine religious freedom and redefine the U.S. as a Christian nation. Project Blitz’s architects hope to use “In God We Trust” as a stepping stone to more damaging bills that allow public schools to promote prayer, teach creationism, and even license discrimination in the name of religious freedom.

In Mississippi, some legislators had the same goal of escalation. They were hoping that putting “In God We Trust” on the flag would be a stepping stone to even more Christian nationalist initiatives. Sen. Michael McLendon (R-Hernando) said, “I think what might change the minds of [my district] if by changing and putting ‘In God We Trust’ on there, if there’s a bill next January putting prayer back in school.”

It’s not even a new strategy to appease supporters of white nationalist flags by replacing them with Christian nationalist symbols or even lesser-known references to the confederate flag. A similar saga played out in Georgia in 2003, when the state replaced the confederate emblem on their flag with – you guessed it – “In God We Trust.” Both Alabama and Florida adopted flags containing the St. Andrew’s Cross, a symbol of both the Confederacy and Christianity. Florida’s flag, like Georgia’s, also added on “In God We Trust.”

These flags and their histories show that Christian nationalism and white nationalism are closely tied. And it’s not just symbols; the proof is in the polls. Researchers find that the more people’s views align with Christian nationalism, the more likely they are to also have negative attitudes towards racial and religious minorities. Christians nationalists are more likely to oppose interracial marriage, hold anti-Muslim prejudice, believe that Black Americans are more violent than white Americans and blame Black Americans who are killed by police. As Caroline Mala Corbin of the University Miami School of Law summarizes, for Christian nationalists, “The mythical Christian America pictured is actually a white Christian America. In other words, ‘Christian nation’ is usually understood to mean ‘white Christian nation.” Unsurprisingly, studies show that an overwhelming majority of supporters of Christian nationalism are white.

Of course, not everyone who supports “In God We Trust” is a white nationalist. And the effect of those words cannot be compared to that of the Confederate emblem, which symbolizes the brutality of slavery and the injustice of segregation. For 126 years, Mississippians have lived under a flag that paid homage to those white Mississippians who enslaved and terrorized Black people.

Still, our vision of justice should be expansive. Mississippi should not replace one exclusionary flag with another. Mississippians practice a variety of religions and faiths, and one in four identify as nonreligious. Our state flags are powerful symbols, so they should represent our shared values and the diversity of our communities. But the new Mississippi flag is just one indication that we still have a ways to go to be an inclusive society: Polls show that people continue to hold negative views towards atheists, who remain among the most negatively viewed groups in America. Unfortunately, under the bill signed by Reeves this week, Mississippi’s flag will continue to signal who is welcome and valued in the Magnolia State and who is not.

Mississippi can’t just paper over its white nationalist symbols with Christian nationalist symbols and say that justice is done.  

Photo: Mississippi Capitol Building in Jackson