“In God We Trust” was adopted as the United States’ official motto in 1956, during a time when our country was locked in an ideological battle with “godless communism” in the Soviet Union. Until then, the elegant phrase “E Pluribus Unum” (Latin for “Out of many, one”) had served as our nation’s unofficial motto.
Thanks in part to Project Blitz, we’re seeing a number of bills in several states requiring public schools to post “In God We Trust” in classrooms, school libraries and other areas.
While many lawmakers who push these bills are only too happy to brag about how they’re getting God back into public schools, others, perhaps worried about potential church-state lawsuits, try a different tactic: They claim that the phrase isn’t really religious.
It’s a curious assertion. We’re to believe that a large sign that urges children to trust in God isn’t religious? Really? Then what exactly is it?
As strange as this argument is, it’s not new. Over the years, the “it’s-not-really-religious” dodge has been used to fend off lawsuits brought by people who have challenged “In God We Trust” being stamped on U.S. currency and the decision to slip “under God” into the Pledge of Allegiance (which, by the way, was also a Cold War-era alteration).
Here’s something even weirder: This argument has actually worked. Courts have rejected these lawsuits, asserting that these uses of generic forms of religiosity by the government have somehow been stripped of religious meaning by constant repetition or that they are merely harmless examples of “civil religion” or “ceremonial deism.”
The problem with this argument is that it is patently absurd. “In God We Trust” is obviously a religious phrase. Furthermore, it’s one that puts the government in the position of taking a stand on theology. The phrase asserts that there is one God (not five, not 20, not no God), and it says that you should trust in this God. It’s what real Americans do. If you choose not to, well, you are suspect.
When giant signs communicating this statement are posted in public schools and put before impressionable youngsters, the message is in no way subtle: The kids are being told that their public school, a government-run institution, wants them to believe in – and indeed trust – in God. For parents (and their children) who don’t accept his view of God or even the existence of a deity, the harm is real and palpable.
Rather than pretend that clearly religious statements are not really religious and that they’re somehow only “patriotic,” advocates of “In God We Trust” would do better to just admit what they’re up to: trying to find a way to get a religious message, even a generic one, into public schools. Once we’re clear on that, we, as a nation of expanding religious and philosophical diversity, could have a long-overdue discussion about whether “civil religion” makes sense for us anymore – and indeed if it ever did.
Personally, I favor getting back to basics. The first coin minted by the U.S. government was the fugio cent. According to some accounts, its design was inspired by Benjamin Franklin. The obverse (“heads”) of the coin shows a radiant sun beaming down on a sundial and beneath it, the phrase “Mind Your Business.” The flipside depicts 13 chains (one for each state) linked together and the words “We Are One.”
Unlike the exclusionary “In God We Trust,” those are some messages we can all get behind.