By Andrew L. Seidel
Freedom From Religion Foundation
The ubiquity of “In God We Trust” is no accident. Government officials in this country are not allowed to use their public office to promote their personal religion. But they are always looking for ways around this rule, if not violating it outright. With “In God We Trust,” they think they’ve found a way to promote their god without violating the Constitution. There are several coordinated efforts to make the phrase as prevalent as possible. All by — surprise! — religious groups trying to use our government to promote their religion.
How did a country that was the first to separate state and church get stuck with a motto that is so obviously religious? It’s because courts have said the religious motto is not really religious. That’s right. Federal courts have ruled that the phrase no longer has any “theological or ritualistic impact.” It’s secular to adopt a motto that not only expounds a belief in a god, but claims all citizens “trust” in him.
Courts have upheld many instances of “ceremonial deism” using this same rationale. Government prayers, “In God We Trust” as a motto, “One Nation Under God” in the pledge, are no longer religious because “any religious freight the words may have been meant to carry originally has long since been lost.” Put another way, these have “lost through rote repetition any significant religious content.” A fuller list follows this article. (While we’re on the subject, let’s agree that “In God We Trust” cannot be ceremonial deism. One doesn’t trust in a deistic god that plays no role in this world, one trusts in a theistic god that does. Ceremonial theism is the more appropriate term.)
In a government where state and church are walled off from one another, federal courts have basically declared that entrusting this world to god is not religious. Imagine for a moment if the courts had declared that John 3:16 or praying the rosary had “no theological or ritualistic” importance because it had been so often repeated. The Religious Right would have had a collective stroke, and rightfully so.
What American Christian would let a court declare that his or her god is not religious or that trusting in this god is not a religious declaration? Where are Liberty Counsel, Liberty Institute, Alliance Defending Freedom, Beckett Fund, Thomas More Law Center, Todd Starnes, Bill O’Reilly, and the rest of the usual suspects with their claims of religious persecution when no less than nine federal courts have said that trusting in god is not religious?
And therein lies the hypocrisy. Christianity benefits when the federal courts declare that “In God We Trust” is not religious, since this allows godly office-holders to use their public office to promote their personal religious agenda. Religious Right groups and activists are perfectly willing to let the government desecrate their religion so long as it also allows them to promote their religion.
So whenever you see “In God We Trust” cut into coin, engraved on a government building, or stuck on a police car know that it is nothing more than a monument to religious hypocrisy.
Here are some of the quotes from courts about this supposedly nonreligious religious slogan:
- “It is quite obvious that the national motto and the slogan on coinage and currency ‘In God We Trust’ has nothing whatsoever to do with the establishment of religion. Its use is of a patriotic or ceremonial character and bears no true resemblance to a governmental sponsorship of a religious exercise.” Aronow v. United States, 432 F.2d 242, 243 (9th Cir. 1970).
- “It is not easy to discern any religious significance attendant the payment of a bill with coin or currency on which has been imprinted ‘In God We Trust’ or the study of a government publication or document bearing that slogan. In fact, such secular uses of the motto was viewed as sacrilegious and irreverent by President Theodore Roosevelt. Yet, Congress has directed such uses. While ‘ceremonial’ and ‘patriotic’ may not be particularly apt words to describe the category of the national motto, it is excluded from First Amendment significance because the motto has no theological or ritualistic impact. As stated by the Congressional report, it has ‘spiritual and psychological value’ and ‘inspirational quality.’” Aronow v. United States, 432 F.2d 242, 243-44 (9th Cir. 1970)
- “’In God We Trust’ has nothing whatsoever to do with the establishment of religion. . . . the primary purpose of the slogan was secular; it served a secular ceremonial purpose in the obviously secular function of providing a medium of exchange. As such it is equally clear that the use of the motto on the currency or otherwise does not have a Primary effect of advancing religion.” O’Hair v. Blumenthal, 462 F. Supp. 19, 20 (W.D. Tex. 1978), aff’d sub nom. O’Hair v. Murray, 588 F.2d 1144 (5th Cir. 1979)
- “The motto’s primary effect is not to advance religion; instead, it is a form of ‘ceremonial deism’ which through historical usage and ubiquity cannot be reasonably understood to convey government approval of religious belief.” Gaylor v. United States, 74 F.3d 214, 216 (10th Cir. 1996)
- “…a reasonable observer, aware of the purpose, context, and history of the phrase “In God we trust,” would not consider its use or its reproduction on U.S. currency to be an endorsement of religion.” Gaylor v. United States, 74 F.3d 214, 217 (10th Cir. 1996)
- “Aronow held the national motto is of a ‘patriotic or ceremonial character,’ has no ‘theological or ritualistic impact,’ and does not constitute ‘governmental sponsorship of a religious exercise.’” Newdow v. Lefevre, 598 F.3d 638, 646 (9th Cir. 2010)
- “The [Supreme] Court’s Justices have distinguished our currency from improper governmental endorsements of religion.” Newdow v. Peterson, 753 F.3d 105, 108 (2d Cir. 2014), denied, 135 S. Ct. 1008, 190 L. Ed. 2d 839 (2015)
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