Posted on April 22, 2014
This is “In God We Trust” Day because it was on this date in 1864 that an act passed Congress authorizing that the phrase be used on a particular U.S. coin.
Did you realize that, for almost the entire first century of the existence of the United States, “In God We Trust” had never been seen on official U.S. seals, letterheads, or money?
And it wasn't until 1956—180 years after the beginning of the nation—that “In God We Trust” became the official motto.
Given that the nation was founded on the idea that there should be no official state religion—and that there should be a separation between religion and government—how did this obvious religious reference come to be adopted as the government's official motto?
A bit of history...
Before “In God We Trust,” there was E pluribus unum. This Latin phrase means “Out of many, one,” an obvious reference to the fact that 13 different colonies had banded together to create one nation. This phrase appears on a banner in the eagle's beak on the Seal of the United States, adopted by Congress in 1782, and the phrase functioned as the new nation's motto for many years.
However, there never was a law specifically adopting the phrase as the official motto.
Actually, it's a pretty lovely phrase. These days, it calls to mind the idea of the U.S. as a “melting pot”: out of many peoples, races, religions, languages, and ancestries, one nation of Americans.
E pluribus unum appeared on U.S. coins starting in 1795 (it appeared even earlier on state coins).
The competing phrase “In God We Trust” was first suggested at a time when E pluribus unum was failing to describe the country: the nation was being torn in half by a bloody Civil War.
During such a scary time—a time when many wondered if the nation would even survive—many people turned to prayers, appeals to their god (or gods) to right the wrong, end the violence, fix what was broken. The Secretary of Treasury, Salmon P. Chase, received multiple letters asking that he ask Congress to put something about “the Almighty God” on the nation's coins, and he ended up doing so.
The phrase “In God We Trust” was used on some coins, starting in 1864, not on others, and disappeared from coins on which it had been previously used for decades; in other words, the phrase appeared on coins only spottily. However, all U.S. coins struck since 1938 have featured the phrase.
Is it constitutional?
People who don't believe in a god, and probably people who believe in multiple gods – a group that includes about 10 to 12 percent of Americans, including most Buddhists, many other religious and spiritual minorities, agnostics, and atheists – are excluded by this motto. Some people point out that they feel left out of the “we” part of the motto—and feeling left out is not a good feeling. Of course, it's ridiculous to have the motto “In God Some of Us Trust” – but at least that would be accurate!
Because the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution forbids the government either supporting or hindering religion, this motto, whether on coins or elsewhere, really is unconstitutional. Some have argued that the word “god” and the concept of trusting god is not particularly religious; court cases people have brought against the motto have failed, at least in some cases, because the judges ruled that the word “god” doesn't actually refer to a particular character. It does not, they say, refer to the God-of-the-Bible. It's more as if the word “god” stands in for concepts such as a “higher power,” perhaps the Force of Star Wars. If that is true, it seems that even the majority of Americans – Americans who are Christian and who believe in God – are left out of the motto...because most of them would not say that they trust a mysterious, nameless universal Force.
Basically, the motto leaves out millions upon millions of Americans – or it taints the concept of trusting in God by saying that the phrase doesn't really mean “God.” Either way, it's not constitutional. It should be replaced with the original phrase, E pluribus unum, which was chosen by our founding fathers and which is as descriptive as the nation now as it was then.
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