Saturday, January 14, 2017
IN GOD WE TRUST - Some Perspective
I recently saw a short video on Facebook about keeping IN GOD WE TRUST on U.S. currency. It said something to the effect of, "The U.S. should keep IN GOD WE TRUST on our money. Share if you agree."
My first thought is, "Is there a serious chance that Congress will vote to remove our national motto from our currency?" Probably not; too many people would be voted out of office on the next election cycle if that happened.
My second thought was, "IN GOD WE TRUST has only been the national motto for about sixty years." While the motto's relative newness shouldn't detract from its meaning, intent, or power, I cringe inwardly when I see it presented as something that has been with our nation since the Revolution.
The History of our Motto
IN GOD WE TRUST was adopted as the nation's motto in 1956 as an alternative or replacement to the unofficial motto of E PLURIBUS UNUM, which was adopted when the Great Seal of the United States was created in 1782.
The Reverend M. R. Watkinson, in a letter dated November 13, 1861, petitioned the Treasury Department to add a statement recognizing "Almighty God in some form in our coins," in order to, "relieve us from the ignominy of heathenism." At least part of the motivation was to declare that God was on the Union side of the incipient conflict between the North and South. Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase acted on this proposal and directed the then-Philadelphia Director of the Mint, James Pollock, to begin drawing up possible designs that would include the religious phrase. Chase chose his favorite designs and presented a proposal to Congress for the new designs in late 1863, once the Civil War had begun.
As Chase was preparing his recommendation to Congress, it was found that the Act of Congress dated January 18, 1837 prescribed the mottoes and devices that should be placed upon the coins of the United States. This meant that the mint could not make changes without the enactment of additional legislation by the Congress. Such legislation was introduced and passed on April 22, 1864, while the war was in full-swing, allowing the Secretary of the Treasury to authorize the inclusion of the phrase on one-cent and two-cent coins.
An Act of Congress passed on March 3, 1865, months before the war came to a close, allowed the Mint Director, with the Secretary's approval, to place the motto on all gold and silver coins that "shall admit the inscription thereon". In 1873, Congress passed the Coinage Act, granting that the Secretary of the Treasury "may cause the motto IN GOD WE TRUST to be inscribed on such coins as shall admit of such motto".
Skip ahead to the Cold War era, the government of the United States sought to distinguish itself from the Soviet Union, which promoted state atheism and thus implemented antireligious legislation. Representative Charles Edward Bennett of Florida cited the Cold War when he introduced the bill in the House, saying, "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". The 84th Congress passed a joint resolution, "Declaring IN GOD WE TRUST the national motto of the United States." The law was signed by President Eisenhower on July 30, 1956. The United States Code at 36 U.S.C. § 302, now states: "'In God we trust' is the national motto."
Boo-bam, we had a motto.
Please note that it is when tensions were high that both of these laws passed. Both were times when people needed something to hang on to. People needed to feel safe and like things were happening according to a higher order. And, also, people needed to feel that they had God on their side. It was comforting.
Does our National Motto Violate the First Amendment?
This is the most oft sighted argument against our motto.
Here is the First Amendment:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
Now that we have the history of the motto, as it pertains to our currency, and the verbage of the First Amendment, let's see if Congress broke the law, twice.
All it takes is a simple series of questions to get to the bottom of this one.
Did Congress make a law establishing a national religion or preventing anyone from practicing their religion?
Did Congress make a law prohibiting free speech or freedom of the press?
Did Congress make a law prohibiting U.S. Citizens from peacefully assembling or petitioning the government with grievances?
Definitely not. If anything, people are bitching to and about the government now more than ever, often in groups.
So, there's nothing unconstitutional about the use of IN GOD WE TRUST as our national motto. Sure, it was adopted during a stressful time, but so what? Prior to 1956, we had no official national motto.
Unfortunately, we live in a time where people look for excuses to be offended. But, the beautiful thing about how our country works, if enough people want to change the motto, it can be changed. It's not locked in.
Now, to respond to that Facebook post which prompted me to write this, "Yeah, let's keep our motto on our money."