We need this motto in our hearts and in our lives, not on our dollars
This time the war isn’t about Christmas. It’s about what’s on your money ― the motto In God We Trust. That’s a line lifted from the national anthem, but I don’t suppose many people know that. Nobody ever sings the fourth stanza, where this phrase shows up. It’s not the easiest song to get into, and it would delay the ball game if all the verses were included.
In any case, the original line from TheStar Spangled Banner reads: “Then conquer we must, when our cause it is just. And this be our motto: ‘In God is our trust.’” When the phrase was adopted for coinage, the secretary of the treasury shortened it, eliminating “is our” for “we.” It fit the space better.
The motto first appeared on the 1864 two-cent piece during the Civil War. (Uh, yes, we once had a two-cent coin, along with a half-cent, three-cent, and twenty-cent coin; the numismatic history of America is sort of nutty that way.)
The motto arose from a plea by a Congregationalist minister, the Reverend M. R. Watkinson of Pennsylvania, in 1861. He petitioned Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase to place some recognition of God on coinage, especially as the Union was fighting for its life. Maybe God would boost Union morale. By 1863, Chase had In God We Trust before Congress and the motto was in circulation the next year. Through the years since, the U.S. mint added it to the other coins, but it was not until 1956 that it was added to paper bills.
It was not then and has not been since without detractors. President Theodore Roosevelt did not like it. He thought it cheapened God and did nothing for the value of the money. In 1907, he ordered the motto removed from the $10 and $20 gold coin redesigns by Augustus Saint-Gaudens. He argued the law did not require it, only permitted it, and besides, it messed with Saint-Gaudens’ neo-classical design. Moreover, Roosevelt thought the motto inspired an “irreverence which comes dangerously close to sacrilege.”
He was right about irreverence. The iconic Morgan silver dollar of 1878 was attacked as largely being a lobbyist scam on Congress by western silver interests. Not a few newspapers sniped at the new dollar. One suggested the motto should be “forgive us our debts” but doubted that Virginia City mine owners would find any “reciprocity in the sentiment.” Taking into account the coin was only 92 percent silver, one paper suggested keeping “in God we Trust” while adding “at about 8 percent off.” The Hartford Currant thought “One Hundred Cents” would do but grumbled it “would be more of a whopper than the other.” As American slogans go, “In God We Trust: All Others Pay Cash,” became a shop owners’ aphorism about as soon as the motto was added.
Somebody now wants to have it removed permanently, calling it a religious intrusion by the government trending to an establishment of religion. The lawsuit, filed by Michael Newdow, argues that compelling atheists to handle money carrying “God” requires a violation of religious conscience. An atheist merchant, as an example in the lawsuit, who is made to touch money with “God” forces the merchant to unwillingly confront a government-mandated religious sentiment, contrary to his own religious beliefs.
Newdow, a California attorney and an emergency room physician, is best known as the fellow who brought suit seeking to remove “under God” from the pledge of allegiance a decade ago. He lost in federal court, won in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, and then lost again on procedural grounds in the Supreme Court.
Now he’s after In God We Trust for a second time. First time, a federal judge ruled against him, saying in effect In God We Trust is really little more than a national symbol, something of a bygone relic, actually. The significance of the motto is of a “patriotic or ceremonial character” and no longer has ― if it ever had ― any real “theological or ritualistic impact” and does not constitute “governmental sponsorship of a religious exercise.” So we can leave it on our coins since the phrase is religiously meaningless.
Like I said, though, he’s tryingagain.
If the motto is a mere “patriotic” or “ceremonial” artifact with no more significance than that, why bother with it? Fighting to keep the motto isn’t much of a defense or even an apologetic for Christianity or even faith of any kind. It’s just a squabble over coin designs.
I doubt very much Christians need the motto for their faith, except as we may keep it in our hearts, in our lives and among our neighbors. It will do more good there, in those places, than it ever did as a product of the U.S. mint.
Russell E. Saltzman, a former Lutheran pastor, is a web columnist at First Things magazine and lives in Kansas City, Missouri.