On one of my social media feeds yesterday, I ran across a post by someone who expressed shock and surprise that the phrase “In God We Trust” has only been on U.S. paper currency since the 1950s.
In other words, it was inserted very, very late in the game of the American democratic experiment of secular government and ostensibly enshrined church-state separation ideals. And few people still seem to understand how it occurred in an American context in the first place.
Indeed, the founders were clearly Enlightenment men, believers in a remote, impersonal God (if one at all) — not the in-your-face divinity of medieval Protestantism — and they feared, almost above all else, the potential of religious tyranny to become an existential danger to the fundamental, evidence-based ethos of the new republic. Because most early settlers in the American colonies were Christians, the enforcement of the Christian God was the principal tyranny to be feared.
God and American money has a long and checkered history. For instance, “In God We Trust” began appearing on U.S. coins at the onset of the Civil War. It’s been on and off, and on again, ever since.
Two bills: God, no God
Fast forward to yesterday, as I looked at the post showing two dollar bills. One post-1957 bill was prominently inscribed with “In God We Trust.” That space was blank in the other, a pre-1957 bill.
The question in the mind of the poster seemed (reasonably) to be, “What the hell happened?”
Good question, and the answer is important in partially understanding how religion — predominantly Christianity in America, as it is our society’s dominant faith by far — so persistently perpetuates in our nation.
It perpetuates because the persistent insinuation of Christian ideals, slogans and public manifestations throughout the culture over centuries has made them seem almost nonreligious in their, shall we say, familiar commonplace-ness.
‘Not worth the fight’?
In a 1991 article, Time magazine wrote that Americans explained in a survey that,
“the banality of [public religious] phrases may not be worth the fight as a symbol of separating church from state. ‘Today even ardent separationists seem to agree with retired Supreme Court Justice William Brennan, who wrote in 1983 that slogans such as ‘In God We Trust’ have ‘lost any true religious significance.’”
The history of religious phrases on American money, including this quote above, are succinctly summarized in an instructive 2016 Time magazine article — “How ‘In God We Trust’ Got on the Currency in the First Place.”
It shows why, unlike Time’s take in 1991, having a religious phrase on our money is well worth fighting as a symbol of religious encroachment on the state.
Here’s another good historical article on the phrase from the U.S. Treasury Department.
Normalizing ‘state religion’
Every time we allow even seemingly small religious embeds in the public business of state, we help normalize it as a natural part of core Americanism. In other words, by so doing we help perpetuate the unconstitutional merging of church and state.
So, it seems important to occasionally remind Americans that these micro-aggressions, if you will, of Christianity upon the nation’s public persona, are bad-faith acts against the clear intent of our Founding Fathers.
And Americans often aren’t even aware it’s happened.
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