I’m a big fan of God, but the governor’s proposal to allow Kentuckians to opt for car license tags that replace the state slogan “Unbridled Spirit” with “In God We Trust” seems like a nice idea with complicated and confusing consequences.
I could be accused of professional jealousy for government getting into the God-promotion business–territory typically assigned to faith communities and families–but my concerns go deeper than simply feeling threatened.
What does it mean to say “In God We Trust?” The phrase is already on our currency, but if we’re going to increase its visibility as a kind of advertising slogan shouldn’t we take time to unpack its implications?
Whose God? What image of God are we promoting? There are a bunch of renditions of God out there, many of the popular ones being dangerous, dysfunctional and downright destructive. How will the viewer of these new license plates have a clue which version of God is being promoted in Kentucky?
What’s the motivation for this free advertisement campaign on behalf of God? Did God ask for this ad campaign? Or is God really the focus at all?
Perhaps the prominent word in the phrase is not “God” but “we.” Who is the “we” in “In God We Trust”? Granted, this question opens up the old can of worms about whether or not we’re a “Christian” nation or even a God-based nation, but still, if Kentucky is going to make this phrase even more prominent in our culture shouldn’t there be some clarity about the “we?”
And what about those who opt to sport these new God-tags more as a form of self-promotion rather than to point to the divine? Talk about a unique spin on the idea of vanity plates!
Which brings us to the word “trust.” What does it mean to say we trust in God? I’ve not heard of a plan to review the qualifications of Kentuckians who request “In God We Trust” plates. Should “we” consider disqualifying cars that display bumper stickers like “This car protected by Smith and Wesson?” How about those with anti-theft devices? What about people who carry car insurance? Do these actions contradict saying they trust in God?
Will “In God We Trust” cars bring divine favor, the declaration of trust resulting in fewer accidents or tickets?
I’m being ridiculous, of course, because that’s the point: For the government to sponsor use of an unexamined catch phrase, especially one with religious implications, is to leave us open to all kinds of wacky implications.
It also trivializes a sacred and serious mystery: that there is more to life than the surface of this world upon which we drive our cars. One writer capitalizes the word “more.” There is More to life. More than any religion can claim to explain or control. More than we can grasp in our lifetime. More love, hope, peace, life. This More is not quickly reduced or easily assuaged by tip-of-the-hat gestures.
To speak of trusting this More is to enter into a realm of serious counter-cultural conversation. Trust in God calls for a life of humble study, reflection, selflessness, examination of everything, including what we’re going to do about the invisible fumes emanating from a tailpipe just a few feet away from any “In God We Trust” license plate.
It’s complicated to trust in God. It’s even more complicated for a government to promote a motto like “In God We Trust.” Better to leave this task to faith communities. Let government work on our roads and highways, which is its own can of worms.
Joe Phelps is pastor of Highland Baptist Church in Louisville, Ky.
A minister in Louisville, Kentucky, for 21 years as pastor of Highland Baptist Church, Phelps is now Justice Coordinator for Earth and Spirit Center. He leads, along with Kevin Cosby, EmpowerWest, a black-white clergy coalition calling for recognition, repentance, and repair of injustices to black Louisvillians.