Since its widespread adoption, conservative Christians have used the slogan “In God We Trust” to justify opposing abortion rights, same-sex marriage, and even expansions of voter rights by suggesting that they violate the principles represented by those words.
But the idea that the phrase is our founding motto is a myth — a tool of extremist lawmakers to perpetuate the fantasy that America is historically a Christian nation.
The U.S. motto on the initial 1776 design of the Great Seal of the United States chosen by John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson, is E Pluribus Unum (“Of Many, One”), celebrating plurality, not theocracy. The Fugio cent, a penny authorized by Congress in 1787 and reportedly designed by Benjamin Franklin, contained the mottos “Mind Your Business” and “We Are One” – a reference to the thirteen colonies.
The statement “In God We Trust” does not appear in any Jewish or Christian Bible. The phrase is literally found in two places of the Quran, in Surah 10 Yunus, as well as Surah 7 Al-A’raf. It first appeared in the U.S. in 1864 on a two-cent piece but not on paper money until 1957. It was first suggested by a pastor in PA in 1861 to make it clear that God was on the side of the Union in the Civil War. In 1863, it began to be put on coins but legislation was necessary and that was passed in 1864.
“In God We Trust” did not become the official motto until 1956 when it was adopted by Congress and put on paper money. Like “under God” in the pledge, “In God We Trust” was a response to the Cold War with the U.S.S.R. to separate ourselves from the godless communists. The representative from Florida who introduced the bill referred to communism as the reason we needed it.
Objections to its use have been ongoing. The first case was in 1970 and then again in 1978 and 1979 with the latest in 2015. One court said the “primary purpose of the slogan was secular.” Another said it is patriotic or ceremonial and has lost all religious content. One court said the motto had no theological or ritualistic impact – so God has no theology? It never ceases to amaze me that religious people do not object to the courts calling their god secular, which trivializes their entire belief system.
President Theodore Roosevelt objected to the irreverence caused by putting it on coins:
“… My own feeling in the matter is due to my very firm conviction that to put such a motto on coins, or to use it in any kindred manner, not only does no good, but does positive harm, and is in effect irreverence, which comes dangerously close to sacrilege. … Any use which tends to cheapen it, and, above all, any use which tends to secure its being treated in a spirit of levity, is from every standpoint profoundly to be regretted. … it seems to me eminently unwise to cheapen such a motto by use on coins … In all my life I have never heard any human being speak reverently of this motto on the coins or show any signs of its having appealed to any high emotion in him, but I have literally, hundreds of times, heard it used as an occasion of and incitement to … sneering … Every one must remember the innumerable cartoons and articles based on phrases like ‘In God we trust for the 8 cents,’ … Surely, I am well within bounds when I say that a use of the phrase which invites constant levity of this type is most undesirable. …” – Theodore Roosevelt, November 1907
The unifying theme chosen by the founders has been discarded for a phrase that creates levity and irreverence toward religion and has been ruled by the courts to be secular and of no theological importance. Thus it seems that those yelling the loudest for religion in the pubic square are doing the most to diminish that very concept.
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