A Brief History of “In God We Trust”

Murals might encourage vandalism. This is art.

South Dakota’s getting ornery again. A new Rushmore State law mandates the display of the United States motto, “In God We Trust” in every one of the state’s 697 public schools. Displaying the motto is required by law, but, schools are allowed to get fun creative with the new rule, which gives school principals the authority to choose between mounted plaque, student artwork, or other. While I’d love to sum up this headline with a short, but hopefully effective, eugh, there’s a long history behind “In God We Trust”, and who would I be if I didn’t offer to lead you through it?

The decision to force all public schools to ordain their already-beautiful white brick walls with the phrase “In God We Trust” is a controversial one, but some folks would raise the question: “why?” Sure, some Americans may not be Christian, persay, but the “God” of the motto is left playfully vague. Jewish people believe in God, Muslims believe in God, and feelings about organized religion aside, “In God We Trust” is the motto of our country, a designation that makes it altogether bulletproof. It can’t violate church v. state if it’s already state, right?

But “In God We Trust” wasn’t always the country’s motto. Maybe you’ve heard the ‘godless communists story’, which is still true (about the Pledge of Allegiance), but “In God We Trust” goes back further than that. According to the Treasury, the would-be motto first gained steam due to “increased religious sentiment during the Civil War”, which is fair. When brother fights brother under separate banners, some might argue we could all use a little Jesus.

So, with the fervor of Pawneeans trying to fill a time capsule, devout Americans across the country started writing to Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase about how the dollar was, you know, fine, but it would look a lot better if it reminded us about God every now and then.

In agreement, Secretary Chase penned a letter to James Pollock, the Director of the Philadelphia Mint, to come up with something. His (paraphrased) letter is as follows:

Jim,

Heard you finished pressing the new line of cash. Here’s the problem: not enough God. Gonna need to work him in there somewhere. I’m not too very well good at words, though, so you’re on your own.

Ok bye.

Pollock, being a good sport, came up with “In God Our Trust”, which Big Daddy Chase swiftly amended to “In God We Trust”. Far from finished, though, the two wouldn’t be able to modify the specifications of US currency without an Act from congress, which they achieved in 1864.

Since the war’s end, the new phrase (it’s still not the motto) has been a pretty static fixture on American currency, important enough that it “disappeared” from the nickel in 1883 and wasn’t replaced until someone noticed it in 1938, fifty-five years later. A 1908 congressional act made it mandatory to keep “In God We Trust” on currency, but at the act’s signing into law, the nickel and penny didn’t display the motto, letting them off on a fun little technicality. God doesn’t have time for pennies.

And that’s all “In God We Trust” was, at least until 1956. Upon the backdrop of a newly-roaring Cold War with the Soviet Union, an angsty US Congress sought ways to separate the good folks of the United States from the cold-blooded communists of the Notorious U.S.S.R., whose government had been well-known for introducing anti-religion legislation. In an effort to identify the United States with western Christian values in opposition to the so-memed “godless communists”, Congress officially passed an Act in 1956, declaring “In God We Trust” the official motto of the United States. With it, they left ‘E Pluribus Unum’ cold and alone on the curb, soaked the painful admixture of rain and tears. Of the bill, Florida Representative Charles Edward Burnett said, “In these days when imperialistic and materialistic communism seeks to attack and destroy freedom, we should continually look for ways to strengthen the foundations of our freedom”.

For most of the duration of the Cold War, that was that. The adoption of the new motto has received occasional legal challenges, but it’s stood fairly strong since 1956, baby. The motto saw renewed interest, though, following the September 11 attacks, when select public schools across the country decided to display the motto openly as a response to… terrorism.

So far, people love the new motto. A 2003 poll by USA Today, CNN, and Gallup listed favorability of keeping the motto on US coinage at 90%. Three years later, a strong and effective US Congress passed legislation reaffirming the phrase as the nation’s official motto (read: doing nothing, but looking like real cool dudes).

There are a bunch of minor cases involving the motto and its use, but at this point, I’m tired of writing about it, you’re tired of reading about it, let’s get to the big stuff.

South Dakota isn’t the first state to mandate the motto’s big-time inclusion in schools. That honor went to Arkansas in 2017. Florida and Tennessee followed in early 2019. Now, here comes South Dakota.

So what’s wrong with the change? Some folks may not like the motto, but it’s our motto. Not always, sure, but that (and E Pluribus Unum’s lifeless, gutted corpse) is in the past. What’s the controversy?

It’s accurate to say that “In God We Trust” is the legal national motto, teflon-clad and kept away from the bloodthirsty provisions of the first amendment, but if we’ve always loved it so much, why pass this law in 2019 and not in 1956? As with the rush to the motto in the wake of the September 11th attacks, this sudden sprint to reinforce its standing in schools follows a perceived national shift in attention toward identity. Often, “In God We Trust” is legislated, not out of patriotism or adoration toward one’s God, but in the interest of clinging to a more righteous identity. It’s a way of reminding members of the outgroup who the ingroup is, and a way of reinforcing the idea that this land, above all, is our land, and not theirs.
Above all, I invite us to re-examine the idea of mandating any mantra in big, bold letters over the heads of children, hoping specifically that they may be forced to read it every day. Loving your God is one thing, as is loving your country. This shit’s weird, though.

This was too serious. I should stick to flags.

(Originally published on bengrapevine.com on July 26, 2019)

Writer, Minneapolitan

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