By Mike Fuljenz –
The national motto ‘In God We Trust’ is facing yet another legal challenge.
On Feb. 1, a group called the Freedom From Religion Foundation and 19 other plaintiffs sued the U.S. Treasury, demanding that the motto be removed from U.S. coins and paper money on grounds that its use constitutes “discrimination” against non-believers.
By handing their money to anyone in a commercial exchange, the plaintiffs argue, they are “forced to proselytize – by an act of Congress – for a deity they don’t believe in.” A similar case in 2011, brought by the same atheist attorney, Michael Newdow, went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, where it was rejected.
Most Americans, including President Barack Obama, have taken the words “In God We Trust” for granted. Thus, many were surprised in 2011 when the House of Representatives voted to reaffirm this simple phrase as the official national motto.
The story of the motto is an engrossing one, and from its inception in 1864, the phrase has been closely linked to the money in Americans’ pockets. The motto now appears on all U.S. coins and paper money, but nearly a century passed before that point was reached. One coin lacked the inscription as late as 1938 – and the motto didn’t appear at all on the nation’s paper money until 1957.
The phrase “In God We Trust” made headlines in October 2011 when the House passed a non-binding resolution by a vote of 396-9 reaffirming its status as the U.S. national motto. It did so after President Obama mistakenly referred to “E Pluribus Unum” as the nation’s official motto. That familiar phrase – which in Latin means “Out of many, one” – has appeared on U.S. coinage for more than two centuries, but enjoys no official status.
Democrats, including Obama, charged that in drafting and passing the resolution, the Republican-controlled House was wasting time.
In response, the sponsor of the resolution, Rep. Randy Forbes, R-Va., noted Obama’s earlier gaffe about “E Pluribus Unum” and pointed out that those words had earlier been engraved in the new Capitol Visitors Center until Congress ordered the use of the proper inscription. Forbes’ resolution supports and encourages the display of the words “In God We Trust” in all public schools and government buildings.
Exactly half a century before the motto “In God We Trust” first appeared on circulating U.S. coinage, a close approximation of this now-famous phrase turned up in a poem by Francis Scott Key that went on to attain equally iconic status when it was set to music and became “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Few Americans are aware of this precursor, for the words are embedded in the seldom read – and almost never sung – fourth stanza of the poem, but it provides a fascinating link between their country’s official national motto, adopted as such in 1956, and its official national anthem, an honor bestowed upon “The Star-Spangled Banner” in 1931.
In the poem’s penultimate sentence, those who read – or sing – the entire set of lyrics will find the following reference to the Almighty:
Then conquer we must, when our cause is just, And this be our motto: “In God is our trust.”
Many Americans mistakenly believe that the government’s use of the words “In God We Trust” dates back to the time of the Founding Fathers – as do two other familiar coinage inscriptions, “Liberty” and “E Pluribus Unum.” In fact, it was the bloody Civil War, not the American Revolution, that stoked religious fervor and gave rise to the phrase’s use on coins.
A Baptist minister from Ridleyville, Pa., the Rev. Mark R. Watkinson, is credited with planting the seed for this unprecedented action. In a letter to Salmon P. Chase, President Abraham Lincoln’s Treasury Secretary, dated Nov. 13, 1861, Watkinson urged that provision be made for “the recognition of the Almighty God in some form on our coins.”
Chase shared Watkinson’s view. And he soon set in motion steps that led to a prominent reference to God on U.S. coinage. After receiving the minister’s letter, he sent a note to Mint Director James Pollock stating: “The trust of our people in God should be declared on our national coins.” Three mottos reflecting such trust were seriously considered for our coinage: “God Our Trust,” “God and Our Country,” and “In God We Trust.”
The late Walter Breen, a renowned numismatic researcher and scholar, speculated that the final and now-familiar inscription – “In God We Trust” – was influenced by the motto of Chase’s alma mater, Brown University: “In Deo Speramus,” a Latin phrase meaning “In God We Hope.” Ironically, Newdow, the atheist group’s lawyer, also is a graduate of Brown.
Whatever the explanation, “In God We Trust” was chosen – and after nearly 150 years on the nation’s coinage, it now seems as basic to the American way of life as singing “The Star-Spangled Banner” or reciting the official Pledge of Allegiance.
The mating of the two-cent piece with the chosen motto “In God We Trust,” starting in 1864, seems to have been a marriage of convenience. Chase had been pondering the placement of some such wording on one or more of the nation’s coins ever since receiving Watkinson’s letter. Being a brand-new coin in a brand-new denomination, the two-cent piece made a perfect first vehicle, since use of the motto there would cause no confusion.
Use of “In God We Trust” wasn’t required by Congress when it passed legislation authorizing the two-cent piece on April 22, 1864. The law simply gave the Treasury discretionary authority regarding the inscriptions on the nation’s minor coins.
The authority was extended to gold and silver coins on March 3, 1865 – and, for the first time, “In God We Trust” was specifically mentioned in that follow-up legislation.
In 1908, a law was passed requiring that the words appear on U.S. coins, though the cent, nickel and dime were exempted because of their relatively small size.
The 1908 law resulted directly from an impulsive decision by President Theodore Roosevelt. In 1907, Roosevelt ordered the Mint not to place the words on two new gold coins. Roosevelt believed that the use of God’s name on coinage was blasphemous, and also maintained that such use cheapened the motto because the coins could be used for illegal or immoral purposes. But Congress overruled him and mandated use of the motto after church groups detected the omission, upon the gold coins’ release.
Matthew H. Rothert Sr., an Arkansas businessman and numismatist, played a key role in getting the motto added to U.S. paper money. Rothert noticed in 1953 that the coins on a church collection plate bore the inscription “In God We Trust,” but the paper money did not.
It was Rothert’s belief that “a message about the country’s faith in God could be easily carried throughout the world if it were on United States paper currency.” He conveyed the idea to Treasury Secretary George W. Humphrey and started a letter-writing campaign that resulted in a deluge of letters to federal officials supporting the placement of “In God We Trust” on the nation’s currency.
Public Law 140, requiring use of the motto on all U.S. coins and paper money was introduced in the 84th Congress and signed into law by President Dwight Eisenhower on July 11, 1955. A year later, on July 30, 1956, Eisenhower signed a second bill establishing “In God We Trust” as the national motto. And one year after that, in October 1957, new $1 bills carrying the inscription became the first to enter circulation. By 1966, the words had been added to all of the nation’s paper money.
On July 30, 2006, the 50th anniversary of the 1956 bill recognizing the official status of “In God We Trust” as the national motto, President George W. Bush issued a proclamation reaffirming the appropriateness of this designation.
“Today,” Bush said, “our country stands strong as a beacon of religious freedom. Our citizens, whatever their faith or background, worship freely and millions answer the universal call to love their neighbor and serve a cause greater than self.
“As we commemorate the 50th anniversary of our national motto and remember with thanksgiving God’s mercies throughout our history, we recognize a divine plan that stands above all human plans and continue to seek His will.”
The inclusion of “In God We Trust” on U.S. coins and paper money has long been a point of contention with certain segments of the American populace. It has been challenged in court a number of times as a violation of the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment and of the principle of separation of church and state.
Critics charge that the phrase constitutes “respect for an establishment of religion” by the government. However, appeals courts have consistently held that such traditional, patriotic or ceremonial words do not amount to government sponsorship of a religious exercise or the establishment of a religion.
For a more complete review of the history of “In God We Trust” on U.S. coinage and currency, see my award-winning article on that subject at www.InGodWeTrustOnMoney.com.