Sunday marked the 50th anniversary of “In God We Trust” becoming the nation’s official motto. Politicians and Christian leaders hailed the anniversary as if it meant something. But what is all the excitement about a ceremonial phrase found mostly just on our money? Why are some Christians so devoted to “saving” the slogan from attempts to remove it?
Politicians and Christian leaders hailed the anniversary as if it meant something. But what is all the excitement about a ceremonial phrase found mostly just on our money? Why are some Christians so devoted to “saving” the slogan from attempts to remove it?
Much of the devotion to the phrase seems to come from those who desperately attempt to demonstrate that America was founded as a “Christian nation.” However, a deeper look reveals that the phrase offers no such proof. In fact, it seems to represent poor theology that should actually undermine the claims of it being our nation’s statement of faith.
First, it is important to note that the phrase is not only recently being challenged by those who find it inappropriate. While atheists such as Michael Newdow are the primary opponents now, some Christians formerly objected to it.
In 1907, Republican President Theodore Roosevelt attempted to remove the slogan from coins, though he thought it appropriate for national monuments.
“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,” Roosevelt argued in the New York Times of Nov. 14, 1907. “But it seems to me eminently unwise to cheapen such a motto by use on coins, just as it would be to cheapen it by use on postage stamps or in advertisements.”
The Rev. Mark J. Duffy announced his support of Roosevelt’s position in the New York Times of Nov. 18, 1907. Duffy argued that “the name of God found no place where it was treated with less reverence than on the coin that was flung across the bar to purchase the liquid that robbed man of his reason and caused his tongue to form the words that blaspheme the Creator.”
Ultimately, Congress responded with such immense opposition to Roosevelt that the slogan was returned to the coins. Many religious leaders joined in fighting for this return, while others opposed it.
The second problem with the phrase is that it often seems to be less about trusting in God than about America being great. It was first suggested to be placed on currency during the Civil War. The Rev. M. R. Watkinson argued that the northern states–who had suffered recent military defeats–were overlooking an important fact.
“I mean recognition of the Almighty God in some form on our coins,” he wrote at the time as reported by the New York Times on July 28, 1856. “From my heart I have felt our national shame in disowning God as not the least of our present national disasters.”
In essence, the phrase was birthed in a bloody war to somehow claim the righteous high ground. Likewise, it became the national motto in the midst of nuclear fears with the communists and is celebrated today in the midst of wars in the Middle East and fears of terrorism.
A third problem with the slogan is its prominence on money. It is sadly ironic that many people–including many Christians–are perhaps more likely to read the word “God” on their money than anywhere else on an average day. Does this somehow make up for not opening our Bibles between Sundays? Or for not praying except when in trouble? Or for not sharing the love of Jesus?
The Rev. Lyman Abbott argued in as sermon reported on in the Feb, 26, 1906, issue of the New York Times that the prevalence of gambling and industries running sweatshops demonstrated America’s love of money. To be honest about such a monetary focus, he suggested that they “change the stars in our flag to dollar marks, and our motto from ‘In God We Trust’ to ‘Be Successful Honestly If You Can, But Be Successful.'”
Abbott argued that the words on our coins were meaningless without actions. His critique remains valid today. Christians like Tom DeLay, Louis Sheldon and Ralph Reed are in the middle of the Jack Abramoff scandal involving money and gambling. And Christians like Ken Lay, Bernie Ebbers, William Crotts and Thomas Grabinski have been at the center of business scandals. One cannot serve both God and mammon. Just which one of these two is the word “God” on our coins really referring to?
Finally, the phrase is incorrect in saying that “In God We Trust.” More accurately–since some Americans do not believe in God, or believe in a different god or gods–the phrase should say, “In God Many of Us Trust.” But as the financial scandals and pleas to God only in times of crisis suggest, this trust is not very consistent. Maybe the motto should therefore be “In God Many of Us Claim to Trust Some of the Time.” Though more accurate, it is unlikely to gain popularity (or fit on a dime).
Despite this inaccuracy, many Christians point to the motto as proof of the U.S. being a “Christian nation.” Yet, such a sentiment stands in direct opposition to evangelical Christian theology. Trust in God and being a Christian ultimately resides at the individual level. Thus, how can we as a collective nation be a Christian or trust in God unless each individual therein is or does?
Instead of a personal salvation, this slogan helps create a nationalistic salvation where one is godly simply because one is an American. Without true faith or trust and without actions to support the words, the slogan is ultimately meaningless. God is not going to look at the coins in our pockets to see how we should be judged, but in our hearts. Perhaps, then, we should spend less time honoring and fighting for the wording on our coins and instead attempt to give to God that which is His.
America may have its godly-sounding slogan, but it also has numerous people who desperately need much more than that. Maybe we should start ministering to the least of these, instead of worrying about the phraseology on our coins. Maybe we should start leading people to actually trust in God, instead of spending our time and money trying to “save” the national slogan.
Otherwise we are left with nothing except a false gospel that has been nickeled and dimed to death.
Brian Kaylor is communications specialist with the Baptist General Convention of Missouri.
Suggested study resource:
Honoring the Ten Commandments: Monument or Movement?
Brian Kaylor is editor and president of Word&Way, associate director of Churchnet, and a contributing editor for EthicsDaily.com.