As I sat watching another dramatic courtroom scene in the television series “The Good Wife” on Amazon Prime Video, I was again assaulted by this phrase starkly displayed on the wall behind the judge: “In God We Trust.”
Every time I see it — and it’s frequently in that courtroom-scene-heavy series — I cringe. Why, in God’s name (so to speak), is the aphorism even there in an essential government venue in a nation that was purposefully founded to bow first to rule of law and the Constitution, not to religion?
Is ‘God’ religious?
And the Constitution, as we all know via the “establishment clause,” supposedly prohibits any entanglement of government with religion. So, what, we might ask, is a more religious concept than God, and, thus, something to which our government should give a wide berth?
The Merriam-Webster online dictionary defines religion in its first entry as, “[T]he service and worship of God or the supernatural.” (italics mine)
That would by definition designate “God” as a fundamentally religious ideation.
So what is a phrase invoking such a purportedly divine entity doing on the walls of the nation’s judiciary buildings — which, we need to remind ourselves, are government buildings publicly built and paid for by taxpayers, religious faithful and heathens alike?
Keep in mind that the problem is hardly that narrow in scope. The phrase “In God We Trust” is also ubiquitous elsewhere in society, on paper and coin money, many school classrooms and even auto license plates, not to mention in paraphrased form — “under God,” etc. — in the Pledge of Allegiance recited daily by American schoolchildren and the national anthem.
Not intended by founders
But, although the phrase has been in use for long decades, it’s not foundational to our republic (in fact, our founders sought mightily to separate religion from government and were deeply wary of a single sect of Christianity ever gaining hegemony over public affairs).
The reason we still are advertently confronted with official representations of Christianity while simply watching a television program has much to do with mankind’s natural conservativism and attachment to tradition.
It’s a timely issue, as Judge Brett Kavanaugh — an ultra-conservative, knee-jerk originalist regarding the Constitution and a zealous Catholic — is a sigh away from being seated on the U.S. Supreme Court, which decides these kinds of critical church-state issues. Read a profile of Kavanaugh in The Atlantic here.
Unfortunately, he’s not the first high-ranking judge with these instincts, which is why we still have this problem in the first place.
‘A matter of historical significance’
In 2015, New Jersey Superior Court Judge David F. Bauman dismissed a case against the Matawan-Aberdeen Regional School District that claimed use of the “In God We Trust” promoted religion and created a “climate of discrimination” against nonbelievers as “second-class citizens” in district schools. In his decision, Judge Bauman argued:
“As a matter of historical tradition, the words ‘under God’ can no more be expunged from the national consciousness than the words ‘In God We Trust’ from every coin in the land, than the words ‘so help me God’ from every presidential oath since 1789, or than the prayer that has opened every congressional session of legislative business since 1787.”
To which I ask, “For heaven’s sake, why not?”
Judge Bauman’s brand of reasoning implies that if anything is accepted over time into common usage and practice, it must be honored unchanged into perpetutity, even if reason screams out for a change or an end. Like, say, slavery.
Same with guns
It is the same reason that we have several hundred million guns in the country (more than 40% of the global total) and are still buying more at a feverish pace while children are being mowed down by military-style automatic weapons in their classrooms, and more and more other people are being murdered (or are killing themselves) in limited and mass shootings all over the country.
In the meantime, local, state and national lawmakers have done virtually nothing to regulate or otherwise control the proliferation and use of firearms, which it needs to be pointed out, only exist for the purpose of killing. The reason lawmakers do nothing is tradition; they believe along with many other Americans that the Constitution guarantees the right to own and use firearms generally however we like. Only, it doesn’t.
As I’ve posted about before (here), a fair reading of the English language and grammar inherent in the Second Amendment, the Constitution’s gun law, reveals that it’s not a broad authorization for citizens to have and use guns without strict regulations. The amendment reads, in full:
“A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.” (italics mine)
As constructed and phrased, what this means is that the need for a well-regulated militia is the essential predicate for a need to bear arms. But as such a nonprofessional, citizen militia referred to then is no longer needed now, it can be fairly argued that no constitutional right still exists for private gun ownership. Indeed, the amendment says nothing about defending our homes, fighting renegade citizens, government overreach or even hunting.
Still, even suggesting that guns should be anathema in American society today and strictly regulated and controlled is “fighting words.” And the wholesale killing goes on without reprieve.
‘In God We Trust’ relatively new
So, with a final few words about “In God We Trust,” I would like to note that the phrase’s appearance on American money, courtroom walls and elsewhere is not an ancient custom of our republic. In fact, it’s a fairly recent occurrence, generally stimulated by fear and war.
The national motto the founders agreed upon was E pluribus unum (Out of many, [comes] one), not “In God We Trust.” But in the existential terrors of the Civil War the new divine saying gained credence as each side beseeched God’s favor, and it began appearing on American coin currency. Ultimately, in 1954, at the height of the Cold War and American fear of Communism, President Dwight D. Eisenhower (recently baptized a Presbyterian) directed that the “God” phrase be inserted into the Pledge of Allegiance. Then, in 1956, he signed into law a declaration that the phrase would be the official new national motto and printed on all paper currency
An insinuation campaign
Over the decades, Christian activists have persistently worked to insert the phrase in courtrooms, schools and various public buildings. And the courts, high and low, have mostly demurred. It’s insidious.
Especially since a fair reading of the Constitution and the founders’ desire for “a wall of separation” between church and state,” indicates that all these changes can rationally be viewed as unconstitutional. God, contrary to common assumption, is inherently and unavoidably a religious concept, and government should not in any way endorse it, even if religiosity was rampant in the nation’s beginning and most citizens are still Christian today.
The point is, regardless, religion in any form should be kept far afield of government.
Declaring allegiance to God on public, tax-supported courtroom walls and money, etc., is an endorsement of religion, period.
It serves to perpetuate religion, not our secular, diverse, democratic republic.
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