A number of states have passed bills lately requiring public schools to post signs reading “In God We Trust.” In some states, the bills are very specific, mandating that the signs be of a certain size or that they be posted in a prominent place.
Kentucky’s version of the law requires prominent placement but doesn’t say anything about size. Education officials in the Fayette County Public School system came up with a perfect solution: They made of copies of the back of dollar bills, framed them and hung them up.
Asked about the displays by a local television station, Superintendent Manny Caulk replied, “Like every school district in the commonwealth, Fayette County Public Schools has complied with the requirements of the new law to display the national motto in our schools. All schools in our district have been provided a framed version of an enlarged copy of a $1 dollar bill to display in a prominent location.”
State Rep. Brandon Reed (R-Hodgenville), the legislator who sponsored the bill requiring that the motto be posted, isn’t pleased and has accused the district of playing “political games.” But it’s actually the lawmakers sponsoring these “In God We Trust” bills who are playing political games – through the Project Blitz campaign, they’re proposing supposedly innocuous bills like displaying the national motto and teaching Bible classes in public schools as the vanguard to other problematic measures that would allow religious freedom to be used to justify discrimination in foster care, marriage and other aspects of life.
The Kentucky law requires schools to post “In God We Trust.” The back of U.S. dollar bills contains the motto. Fayette County schools are meeting the law’s requirements, so what’s the problem?
Posting money has another additional benefit: It might spur some students to start thinking about how that phrase got on our currency in the first place. That, in turn, could lead to some interesting classroom discussion about the origin of the phrase.
“In God We Trust” isn’t something the Founding Fathers came up with. Early U.S. coins contained other phrases, such as “Mind Your Business” and E Pluribus Unum, America’s unofficial national motto.
A Pennsylvania minister, M. R. Watkinson, first pitched the idea of a religious motto on coins in November 1861. Watkinson was distraught that the Civil War was not going so well for the North at the time and thought adding the phase to money might help.
U.S. Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase agreed and told James Pollock, director of the federal mint at Philadelphia, “The trust of our people in God should be declared on our national coins. You will cause a device to be prepared without unnecessary delay with a motto expressing in the fewest and tersest words possible this national recognition.”
The phrase appeared on coins sporadically after that but was not codified for use on all currency until 1956, when “In God We Trust” was declared the national motto. It first appeared on paper money the following year. Congress’s embrace of “In God We Trust” was a form of civil religion undertaken in part to strike a blow against “godless communism” in the Soviet Union.
An honest discussion of this history forces us to confront some tough questions: Is the motto political in nature? Is civil religion of any value? Does the motto send a message of exclusion to non-theists and others? Doesn’t E Pluribus Unum more accurately reflect our nation’s values?
Good questions – and they could spark a discussion that’s worth having in a classroom. Instead of posting religious signs in public schools devoid of context, maybe we should have that conversation.