Bring Back Our Motto

Bring Back Our Motto November 25, 2020

U.s. motto

In God We Trust. This unconstitutional motto has been imposed on the United States. With a new, more sensible administration on the horizon, let’s ask if we can do better.

Do we really trust God?

One might pray to God for comfort when things are bad, but who would pray instead of using evidence? Who would trust God for safe passage across a busy street rather than looking and using good judgment? Or trust God for a good grade rather than studying? Or trust God for food rather than earning money to buy it?

Sometimes people do actually trust God, putting everything in his hands and not presuming he needs any help, like reject medical treatment and instead pray for their child to be made well, but the state rejects that. It steps in and insists on proper medical care. No, trusting in God might sound nice, but when it comes to something important, we take the approach that works.

Like government. The U.S. Constitution begins, “We the people of the United States.” We the people work together to build roads, educate our children, and defend our country. It’s not perfect, but we do a pretty good job. We have a trustworthy government, which is why it’s ridiculous to have that government declare that it’s actually God that we trust. Remember the words of the Declaration of Independence: “Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” The buck stops with us.

What’s good about “In God We Trust”?

Let’s consider this from another angle. What’s the point of this motto? How is God supposed to react? Does it make him happy? Does it tell him anything new? Does it remind him that we care, just in case he’s sad? Is it a magic charm or a spell? Are we sweet-talking God so that he does nice things for America?

I’m not trying to be rude, but it’s not me who’s offensive—it’s this motto and those who are behind it. Naturally, Christians take very seriously their relationship with God, but how shallow do politicians think Christians’ faith is, when they put this motto on money or on buildings? If they must steal the prestige of the U.S. government to bolster Christians’ faith?

Or maybe this motto has nothing to do with heaven but is firmly grounded here on earth. It’s pretty clearly a gift given by politicians to their Christian supporters, the solution to an invented problem and a subversion of the First Amendment.

Ceremonial deism

To see how shallow the motivation behind this motto is, consider a similar problem, the “under God” phrase in the Pledge of Allegiance. Think about how that part of the Pledge goes: “one nation, under God indivisible!” Right before the word “indivisible” was inserted the very divisive phrase “under God.”

In court challenges, those in favor of these religious phrases have tipped their hand. “Oh, c’mon,” they say. “This isn’t an imposition of Christianity! These tired phrases have been used so much that they amount to nothing more than ‘ceremonial deism.’ ”

That’s the retreat that advocates for these godly phrases have taken—they dismiss them as merely “ceremonial deism.” They see the problem, so they say that “In God We Trust” is just something you say, without any real meaning, like “How do you do?”

Think about how this inverts things. Those who want “In God We Trust” say that it has only a ceremonial meaning, while others must point out the very obvious Christian claim in this divisive phrase. But if Christians see this as a relatively meaningless phrase with no significant Christian content, then drop it!

“In God We Trust” in Clark County

About five years ago, I attended a public meeting in Vancouver, Washington, the county seat of Clark County. The Clark County Board of Councilors had decided that, among their many pressing matters of business, they should spend most of a day deciding if “In God We Trust” should go up on the wall in their public hearing room.

For hours, the councilors heard comments, first in favor of the slogan and then against it. Each was given applause by partisans of that viewpoint. Anyone who thought this was not a divisive issue left that meeting with no doubt.

Since I live in a different county in Washington, you might say that it wasn’t my business to challenge the wishes of the good people of Clark County, but that’s not who was pushing for this. There was no groundswell of local demand. Instead, an organization from California was pushing local governments nationwide to put “In God We Trust” on the walls in government buildings.

Imagine attending a council meeting as a non-Christian and seeing “In God We Trust” glaring down at you. How welcome would that citizen feel? Imagine instead it was a Muslim slogan in Arabic. Or a Hindu slogan in Sanskrit. Or a Satanic slogan or 666. If “Allahu Akbar” is offensive on the wall, if it violates the First Amendment, why is “In God We Trust” appropriate?

We’ve been here before

We’ve seen this in our annual celebration of the War on Christmas. You’ll have a city hall that puts up a manger display every year. Then a freethought group says that this is fine on private property but not city property; please take it down. So the next year, the city allows all groups to have holiday displays, and you get Festivus poles, freethought slogans, and celebrations of Roman Saturnalia or Norse Yule plus seasonal displays from other religions. Predictably, Christian groups complain, and the next year you have nothing on public property, and the Christian focus turns to where it belongs, Christmas displays on private property like churches.

Why is this always so hard? Why not admit that the government elevating Christianity over other religions is against the rules and just stay out of religion? Can elected officials just get it right the first time? And, to the point at hand, why is it not obvious that with “In God We Trust,” government is unfairly benefitting Christianity?

What’s the solution?

Consider the motto that we discarded, E Pluribus Unum, which means, “Out of Many, One.” This has been the motto on the Great Seal since 1782. America is composed of people who came from all over the world to pull in the same direction to make one great country. “Out of Many, One” was tailor-made for the United States, but we flushed it down the toilet in favor of “In God We Trust,” a baggy one-size-fits-all suit that could be worn by a hundred countries.

Politicians often seem deaf to reason, and this issue can seem like an uphill battle, but let me suggest one small bit of civil disobedience: cross out the “God” on your money. Let people see you do it. Tell them why if they ask.

“In God We Trust” is divisive, but that’s what some politicians live for. They invent problems that they can solve (or better: not solve). “God will be annoyed unless we tell him how much we love him, so vote for me so I can support a godly motto!”

Or, we could respect the First Amendment, the friend of every citizen, Christian and non-Christian.

In this election year, we’ve seen the problems with divisive politics (as if we needed a reminder). “In God We Trust” is ceremonial and meaningless, God doesn’t need it, and it’s divisive. It’s the solution to no problem.

Bring back our motto. Let’s return to E Pluribus Unum, a motto for all.

If you don’t have a seat at the table,
you are probably on the menu.
— Congressman Barney Frank

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(This is an update of a post that originally appeared 6/29/16.)

Image from Bob Shepard (license CC BY 2.0)

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