Our motto risks becoming ‘Over God we fight’

Sunday, July 23, 2006

Lest we forget, our first national motto (adopted by the Founders in 1782) was E pluribus unum — out of many, one. But look around America these days and you’ll see plenty of “pluribus” but very little “unum.

Divided and angry, many Americans are spoiling for a fight. Even something as innocuous as the 50th anniversary of our second national motto, “In God We Trust,” is an occasion for culture warring on all sides.

When adopted by Congress on July 30, 1956, “In God We Trust” was intended to unite the nation against the scourge of “godless communism.” But in an era of exploding religious diversity (including growing numbers of people with no religious preference), expressions of national unity sound like nostalgia for the ‘50s.

The “In God We Trust” anniversary is viewed as a godsend by culture warriors on one side. Long frustrated by what they see as the removal of God from public life (and dedicated to restoration of a “Christian America”), some conservative Christian groups are using the anniversary to persuade city councils across the nation to post the motto in council chambers.

At the same time, the American Family Association and other conservative religious groups are counting on the “In God We Trust” celebration to speed up their efforts to display the motto in every public school classroom. Earlier this month, Ohio became the latest of many states to require that all state schools display any donated copies of the motto. AFA is ready to donate, boasting that more than half a million of their “In God We Trust” posters have been distributed since 2001.

Still stung by Supreme Court rulings striking down teacher-led prayer and the posting of the Ten Commandments in the classroom, many evangelical groups see the motto as a way to recover lost ground. Although student religious expression abounds in many public schools these days (including thousands of Christian clubs), that isn’t enough for those who believe government must symbolically acknowledge a reliance on God.

The brilliance of the 50th-anniversary strategy is obvious: What politician who cares about getting re-elected would dare oppose posting the national motto anywhere, anytime? No one wants to go back home and explain a vote against “In God We Trust” — especially in a time of national crisis.

That’s why politicians of both parties are lining up to “commemorate, celebrate, and reaffirm” the motto, in the words of the Senate resolution passed unanimously earlier this month. Whatever the mixed motives of some senators, the lead sponsor, Sen. Sam Brownback, R.-Kan., wasn’t shy about describing the anniversary as an opportunity to fight “attempts to remove God from the public square.”

The House has yet to act, perhaps because the drafters of the original House version used explicit theological language about the “American trust in the Christian deity” and “the proper role of civil government as under the authority and protection of the Lord.” Even some conservatives may view that as going too far.

So look for the final House resolution to concur with the Senate’s more-tempered language about celebrating the motto as “a fundamental aspect of the national life of the citizens of the United States.”

At times like this, political leaders who don’t think God has been chased out of public life (or schools) — and who don’t want government involved in religion – are reluctant to speak out against appropriating “In God We Trust” as a culture-war weapon.

In fact, the first and last major political leader to question the use of the motto was President Theodore Roosevelt — and he quickly learned his lesson. In 1907 he tried to remove “In God We Trust” from coins (where it was placed after the Civil War). Putting God on money, he argued, is “irreverence” that “comes dangerously close to sacrilege.”

Roosevelt’s attempt to separate God and mammon provoked public outcry and led to a congressional act requiring “In God We Trust” on various coins in perpetuity. Subsequent efforts to challenge government’s use of the phrase, including in the courts, have failed repeatedly.

For Americans weary of the God-fight, here’s a modest proposal: Use the first motto to balance the second. Instead of in-your-face posters that trigger conflict, why not displays that teach the history and context of both mottos? If we have to put something on walls, let it be a message grounded in history — a message that attempts, at least, to unite rather than divide.

America’s Framers faced the daunting task of joining 13 states into one country — E pluribus unum. But our challenge may be greater.

Millions of Americans still trust in one God — but even they understand that God very differently. Millions more trust in many gods or none. If we hope to live and work together as “We the People,” then surely our shared ideal must be “out of many, one.”

Charles C. Haynes is senior scholar at the First Amendment Center, 1101 Wilson Blvd., Arlington, Va. 22209. E-mail: chaynes@freedomforum.org.

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