In God Some Trust: The False Representation of the American Ideal
"In God We Trust. I don't believe it would sound any better if it were true." - Mark Twain
This past Tuesday marked the 57th anniversary of the date that Congress adopted “In God We Trust” as the official motto of the United States. The non-secular phrase replaced E Pluribus Unum (“Out of many, one”), which had been the unofficial slogan of the U.S. since its prominent placement on the obverse side of The Great Seal of the United States in 1782. Initially, this change was based on Cold War hysteria, but why the motto hasn't been revisited from a modern perspective is a question that bears some investigation.
Let’s quickly back up a moment to examine the origins of each motto and the political climate at the time of the change. In 1861, a reverend from Pennsylvania, M.R. Watkinson, petitioned the United States Treasury to include a religious sentiment of some form on our national currency. The thinking here was that God's providence in the Union cause had to be physically manifested. This request was solemnly observed by the U.S. Mint, who then had to lobby for Congressional action in order to gain approval for the changes. In 1864, during the peak of the Civil War, the first coin appeared - a two-cent piece etched with the words, "In God We Trust." Since 1938, every U.S. coin has been inscribed with the phrase. Of course, the irony here is that this phrase is printed on the modern American deity, our currency.
Although E Pluribus Unum was never officially recognized as America’s motto, it had been unofficially considered so for nearly 175 years due to its widespread inclusion on dozens of symbolic American emblems. By 1956, the Cold War was continuing to escalate to terrifying new heights, and, thanks to a homophobic Senator from Wisconsin stirring up an effective "Red Scare," anti-Soviet paranoia had crept into the collective consciousness of thriving post-WWII America. This paranoia led to a polarizing propaganda effort, which resulted in a heavy backlash against any activity considered "un-American." As someone who did not live through this period, I take this descriptor to imply anything that could have been construed as identifying with our principle enemy, the U.S.S.R., or any of her allies. This is, of course, a ridiculous notion because it implies that, since our enemies change daily, what constitutes our ideals as Americans can also somehow be changed in the same 24-hour time period.
In 1984, George Orwell's scathing demonization of a totalitarian dystopia (The Soviet Union masked as what Orwell referred to as "English Socialism," or "Ingsoc"), Winston Smith informs us, "We were at war with Eastasia. We have always been at war with Eastasia." Winston knows this to be false in the same way that we all know that the Cold War was merely a temporal phenomenon, ostensibly lasting from the signing of The Marshall Plan to the destruction of the Berlin Wall. Yet, like Winston's countrymen, our citizens willfully accepted the new rules and shifted their perception of the nature of evil to relate to anything even remotely Soviet (such as the color red, or snow, perhaps).
We were now participating in perpetual "Opposite Day"; anything Russian was un-American and everything un-American could be attributed to the evils of The Soviet Union. Therefore, given the Marxist ideal that a true Communist state should be void of religion, there was suddenly a distinct pressure on America to prove the exact opposite held true for democracy. Thus, religion (specifically, non-Catholic Christianity) became a large part of the model American profile. To place the (what's another word for red?) cherry on top of this cake of democracy, Congress decided that we needed a unified national slogan that represented the good Christian values of suburbanite Americans. Hence the change in syntactical representation, effectively eliminating 250 years of history dedicated to the idea of freedom, religious or otherwise.
Remember "Freedom" Fries? It was kind of like Freedom Fries, except not as palatable. The problem was that everyone took this religious-faith-as-national-signifier seriously, and now we're stuck with it. A secular nation with a religious mission statement... Only in America!
Speak for Yourself
Comparatively speaking, we live in a country with a rather casual attitude toward religion, and it seems as though most citizens don’t put too much stock into our monotheistic motto. In fact, I'm sure that most aren't even aware that this is our official national slogan. Still, it seems odd that a country whose very foundation is supposedly based on the idea of freedom of religion, not to mention the separation of church and state, has done nothing to repeal, or at least to alter, this decidedly dogmatic motto.
Out of fifty heavily diversified states, we are one unified nation; I realize this statement probably rustles many a Texan's Jimmies, but get over it. (If you can't; if you'd rather not get on board with this idea, by all means, please, please just secede, and get it over with.) Furthermore, out of many races and religions, we have created a whole that could not exist without each of its individual parts. We are as diverse a civilization as this world has ever witnessed - a fact that should be celebrated, not diminished by a fraudulent all-encompassing representation of spiritual homogenization.
Conversely, a large percentage of Americans not only don’t put their trust in God, but don’t believe in His existence in the first place. Right or wrong doesn't factor into this conversation; people are entitled to their beliefs in the same way that they are entitled to their non-beliefs. Beyond that, an individual's understanding of God is just that: Individual. Religion and spirituality are highly personal and should be respected as such. For one portion of the population's faith to be thrust upon the general populous is antithetical to the American ethos. It makes zero sense and comes off as dishonest.
Am I making a mountain out of a mole hill here? Possibly - the courts and our leaders in Washington certainly see it that way, and many readers will undoubtedly feel the same. But this particular mole hill is an important outward representation of our national identity to the world at large, not to mention a confusing contradiction to the 300 million American citizens living within our borders. How can we possibly pay lip service to the idea of endorsing a secular government with one hand, and then brand our nation's currency with a monotheistic motto with the other. It's a whole new form of doublespeak, one that would have made Winston Smith and his creator shiver. But little things like this have a tendency to frighten us, so we write them off as petty and unworthy of reexamination.
Clearly, America is not a Godless place, but religion and spirituality mean 300 million different things to our 300 million different citizens. Out of many, we are one, but that doesn't mean we all believe in the same One. Granted, we are a nation well stocked with hypocrites, but do we really want to advertise this fact as by branding ourselves with a sanctimonious contradiction? If the fundamental aspect of democracy is respect, why would we want to alienate over half of our citizens and a large portion of the world with these four little words, especially when our previous motto served as such a unified mission statement to our friends and enemies alike?
Klaeysen, Anne. "The Founders Preferred 'E Pluribus Unum.'" New York Times. 12 Apr. 2012. Web. 30 Jul. 2013.