Over God We Fight

Sunday, September 30, 2007

No big celebrations are planned for Oct. 1, the 50th anniversary of the appearance of “In God We Trust” on our paper currency. After all, most Americans barely notice the phrase — until, of course, someone tries to take it away.

Not that anyone is likely to succeed in erasing the motto anytime soon. Court challenges — including the most recent in 2006 — don’t get very far. And polls consistently tell us that the vast majority of people want to keep the phrase on the money.

Even many Americans who aren’t especially religious identify with descriptions of a nation “under God” and take comfort in singing “God Bless America,” which seems to have become the unofficial national anthem.

Court decisions reflect this popular acceptance of references to deity in the motto, the Pledge of Allegiance and elsewhere. Labeled “mere ceremonial deism” by some Supreme Court justices, these mentions of God are usually treated by courts as little more than acknowledgements of our history with little or no religious significance.

In other words, we’re told that “In God We Trust” doesn’t “establish” religion because it isn’t really religious.

Of course, this clever way around the First Amendment’s establishment clause doesn’t satisfy true believers on either side. Strict separationists continue to battle against any government appropriation of God. And many Christian conservatives continue to push for government to acknowledge God — and really mean it.

In recent years, conservative religious groups have successfully lobbied for state laws encouraging or requiring the motto to be posted in every public school. They have had other victories as well: Last year, Florida made the phrase the state motto; this year Indiana began offering “In God We Trust” license plates. Not surprisingly, this campaign to spread official use of the motto has triggered new fights and lawsuits.

It’s worth noting that organized efforts on behalf of state acknowledgements of God intensify during periods of national crisis. “In God We Trust” first appeared on coins during the Civil War, a conflict that many Americans viewed as God’s judgment on the nation.

At the height of the Cold War, when many feared the threat of atheistic communism, “under God” was added to the Pledge in 1954 and “In God We Trust” was made the national motto in 1956 — and put on paper currency a year later.

Today, widespread anxiety about everything from a moral breakdown in society to the threat of terrorism has renewed efforts by some religious conservatives to restore what they believe has been lost: a nation that trusts in God.

But if restoring trust in God by promoting “In God We Trust” is the aim, it doesn’t appear to be working. On the contrary, putting God on money has done little more than produce court rulings explaining how “In God We Trust” has been drained of any religious meaning.

Trusting in God is an act of faith, not a national slogan. State proclamations of “In God We Trust” — on money, classroom walls, license plates or anywhere else — do nothing to make people (including politicians) actually trust in God. And proclaiming it ever louder (or getting the government to proclaim it ever louder) will never persuade anyone to do what faith requires.

Maybe it’s time for religious Americans to “give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s” — and for all Americans to reaffirm our commitment to the first national motto: E Pluribus Unum, 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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