Teddy Roosevelt: ‘In God We Trust’ on Money is ‘Sacrilege’

When the phrase “In God We Trust” was going to be placed on the $20 gold coin in 1907, President Teddy Roosevelt was against it (PDF):

“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…”

That, from a president who was a Christian, a Sunday school teacher, and a Republican… those days are long gone.

Al Stefanelli has a nice screenshot of the November 14th, 1907 New York Times article about Roosevelt’s letter, along with further analysis:

How long do we have to wait until an American president makes a statement that refreshing again?

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.

  • honestabe

    I don’t know if I’d go that far… I agree with Roosevelt’s conclusion, but not his rationale. If you read the context of the article, he just thought the use of the motto on money would show it disrespect. He considered the phrase “beautiful and solemn,” and thought it should be treated with “reverence.” He even advocated for its inscription “on our great National monuments, in our temples of justice, in our legislative halls, and at buildings such as those in West Point and Annapolis.” That’s not very refreshing to me. 

  • Lemon

    Don’t be silly, honestabe… Everybody knows that context doesn’t exist on the internet.

  • Shrdlu42

          Yes, and the two of you just demonstrated that fact.

  • Deen

    But it does show something that used to be a much more common opinion: that the church-state separation protects the church too.

  • Shrdlu42

          Actually, James Madison observed that both Church and State would be strengthened, and would exist in greater purity, the farther apart they are kept.

  • Shrdlu42

          I would say the proper context is that Roosevelt didn’t not believe in slavishly invoking God purely for political purposes, as so many Republicans today do. He also felt (properly) that putting the phrase on something so mundane and commercial as our coins was actually an insult to God.

          I seem to remember someone else observing that what’s on public coins was none of God’s business. Who was that guy again?

  • Anonymous

    Teddy would have been treated as a RINO.  Which I find to be sad and amusing, given that Republicans are supposed to be a “big tent party” but they tend to push out anyone that doesn’t strictly adhere to a specific set of platforms.

    I looked up the wiki article on this phrase: “Religious accomodationists,
    on the other hand, state that this entrenched practice has not
    historically presented any constitutional difficulty, is not coercive,
    and does not prefer one narrow sect over another.”

    It is coercive in that to get currency, you have accept the presence of the motto.  Some people have even mentioned this in speaking against Jessica Ahlquist, asking why is she complaining about a banner when the money has this religious phrase on it.

  • Shrdlu42

          Not only Teddy, but also such Republicans as Eisenhower and Goldwater, even Reagan might have trouble today (he praised PBS funding the series The Civil War). That’s one reason I refer to the modern G.O.P. as the Republi-Con Party. When first formed in the 19th Century, the Republicans were actually the liberal party. (Indeed, they were known as the “Radical Republicans”.) Today’s G.O.P. ceased being “the party of Lincoln” a long time ago, and needs to be called something other than “Republican”.

    P.S. – And I wouldn’t make such a fuss about the coins. Who even looks at them anymore, except for coin collectors and people wanting to make sure they’re not using a quarter instead of a nickel? Heck, I hardly use cash anymore! There are far more important Church/State issues to fight over: abortion, birth control, gay marriage and rights, stem-cell research, to name a few.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_RZ5VEXJ3IYNGQBHI5APT4DETJI FSq

    To get a very good feel for Roosevelt’s thoughts on this and many other religious takes, read “Wilderness Warrior” by Douglas Brinkley. Really sums it up nicely, and gives tremendous insight into the man.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Sam-Salerno/1468204658 Sam Salerno

    Teddy did that to protect the idea of god. After much backlash for his statements in 1907 he  made it a law for, “In God We Trust” to be on most coins.. Teddy Roosevelt also called Thomas Paine a “filthy little atheist.” So Jessica Ahlquist is not so alone in the political name calling world

  • http://www.facebook.com/cburschka Christoph Burschka

     “filthy little atheist”

    Wow, that’s hilariously close. Too bad Youtube wasn’t around for Thomas Paine to register FilthyLittleAtheist as a username. 😛

  • Shrdlu42

          To be accurate, it was Congress that did that, not Roosevelt all by himself. (Which is in keeping with what he said in the article cited by the author: if Congress wanted the motto on all coins, it should pass a law mandating it.)

          Even then, Congress only required the motto appear on those coins where it had previously appeared, but there was no attempt to make its use universal until 1938. (Interestingly enough, when another liberal was in the White House.)

    See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/In_God_We_Trust

          Let’s not forget, though, that this is all a case of playing politics with God, and it’s disgraceful. If patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel, then religion is probably next-to-last.

          Finally, the whole point of this article, and the Roosevelt anecdote, lies in the fact that Teddy wasn’t an Atheist (neither were such staunch supporters of Church/State Separation as Jefferson and Madison). Indeed, one of the great champions of Separation was the Reverend Isaac Backus – a Baptist Minister. All of these worthies would probably say that keeping God out of politics was the religious thing to do!

  • http://www.facebook.com/cburschka Christoph Burschka

    Heh… I actually only recently stumbled across that letter while responding to a Cranstonite Youtube comment about how “atheists shouldn’t use money”. I fear my citation kind of fell on deaf ears there.

    Yes, of course Roosevelt’s actual rationale is entirely unsatisfactory, but it does point out how the entanglement of church and state is a detriment to the church as well.

    It is true that “it’s for their own good” feels like a dishonest argument, because I frankly couldn’t give a flying spaghetti monster about the well-being of organized religion, and in fact (unrealistically) hope that I live to see its end as a serious influence on society. But in the short term, atheists and believers should be equally interested in the separation of church and state. Small steps can be effective: The Scopes trial fought for the right of a teacher to teach evolution; now the fight has almost everywhere been won for their duty to do so.

  • Shrdlu42

          Actually, it’s fundamentalism, whether religious or anti-religious, that society can do without. As long as we respect each others’ rights under law, there’s no reason both religion and atheism can’t exist side by side. That’s what separation of Church and State is all about!

  • Dfledermaus

    I can understand why Teddy thought the motto “In God We Trust” on a $20 gold piece would be embarrassing. After all, it’s backed by gold so saying you need to trust anything else on it is superfluous at best and tantamount to a mockery. Now if instead it said, “In Gold We Trust” that would still be superfluous but, for a $20 gold piece,  at least it would be truth in advertising.

  • Skjaere

    Not as long as we’re living in a country where a large percentage of the citizens conflate Christianity, patriotism, and capitalism.  *sigh*

  • Ronlawhouston

    TR didn’t have Faux News and the 24 hour outrage cycle.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Chip-Jordan/677807462 Chip Jordan

    After seeing this post I was confused about the issue appearing that early in the century. I was under the impression that the motto didn’t appear on coins/currency until the 1950’s, but the ’50s are when Congress passed a law making In God We Trust the national motto. The motto began appearing on paper currency soon after, but had been on coins since the 1860s.

    http://www.treasury.gov/about/education/Pages/in-god-we-trust.aspx

  • Shrdlu42

          Could you possibly be a little more vague? What “corrosive institution” are you talking about? Using money?

  • Indigo Mordant

    Since you asked so nicely, sure.


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