Sixty-five years ago tomorrow, President Dwight Eisenhower signed into law a resolution that enshrined “In God We Trust” as our nation’s official motto.
“In God We Trust” is the nation’s first official motto — the de facto motto “E Pluribus Unum” (out of many, one) was never legally codified. That same day, July 30, 1956, the 84th Congress also passed a measure to require all American currency to include “In God We Trust,” which is why your Abe Lincolns and Alexander Hamiltons have the phrase on their backsides.
The phrase first appeared on U.S. coins to respond to increased religiosity during the Civil War, being stamped on a two-cent coin issued in 1864. After appearing on most coins until 1873, the motto disappeared but would sometimes reappear. It wasn’t until the Eisenhower administration that it was permanently enshrined on American currency.
There are various reasons offered for the introduction of “In God We Trust” in the 1950s. The most oft-cited reason – and the one mentioned by U.S. Rep. Charles Bennet (D-Fla.) on the House floor – was to distinguish the United States from the Soviet Union, which enforced state atheism. Bennet proclaimed, “In these days when imperialistic and materialistic communism seeks to attack and destroy freedom, we should continually look for ways to strengthen the foundations of our freedom.” He continued by arguing that “while the sentiment of trust in God is universal and timeless, these particular four words ‘In God We Trust’ are indigenous to our country.”
Yet the Cold War narrative hides more than it reveals. In his book One Nation Under God, Kevin M. Kruse, a professor of history at Princeton University, points toward Eisenhower’s revolutionizing of religion in American society as a catalyst for the motto change. Eisenhower is the only president to have been baptized during his time in office. He was close friends with Billy Graham, instituted opening prayer before cabinet meetings and cemented the idea that America is, should be, and always was, a religious nation.
Kruse goes on to argue that corporations in America were the head engineers of this religious revival, but the historical picture he paints of Eisenhower and the religious extremists before him is damning for the Cold War argument about the adoption of “In God We Trust.” That legacy makes it much more difficult to believe that adoption of the motto had a secular rationale, as advocates sometimes claim.
While the jurisprudence around the issue, which largely argues that the phrase has become so ceremonial that it has lost any religious favor, is often invoked by motto defenders, it is ultimately unconvincing. The phrase is religious, and, above all, reflects Christian principles. “In God” evokes a traditional, singular god, a belief that excludes some religions. The “We” groups all Americans, religious or not, into a crowd of singular believers; should you not believe, you feel less American. And with “Trust,” it asks of Americans to have faith in a divine providence many don’t trust.
The language of the motto, combined with a history that pushed church-state separation to its limits, makes “In God We Trust” anything but the secular ceremonial phrase many people believe it to be. Perhaps it’s time we let the phrase go. Ultimately, people of all religions and none should feel like they are a part of the United States without having to profess a trust in God. Those who do trust in God should be able to express that belief freely, so long as they do not abuse the law to impose their religious beliefs on others.
As for a replacement motto, there are a lot of possibilities. E Pluribus Unum is always a great one to fall back on, but the state motto of Oregon, “She Flies with Her Own Wings,” has a nice ring to it, too. I’m personally a fan of “Cultivate Peace and Harmony with All ” or “Moderation, Perseverance, and Firmness,” two phrases from George Washington’s farewell address. Any of these are more inclusive, and truer to American ideals, than “In God We Trust.”