It took 151 years, but “In God We Trust” has gone viral. The phrase, first placed on a U.S. coin in 1864, has become the message of choice for a growing number of law enforcement agencies across the country.
“There are all these news stories about Ferguson and Baltimore, and I have personally been in a firefight and when you come out of one of those, you know you’re trusting in God,” Nathan Stevens, police chief of Cave City, Ark., told KAIT television. Fueled by controversies over aggressive policing and seemingly random attacks on officers,dozens of departments have placed “In God We Trust” on patrol cars.
Despite our constitutional guarantee that government cannot promote a specific religion, the decals will remain. The reason: A 1970 federal court decision that came to the surprising conclusion that “In God We Trust” is not a religious expression.
“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,” the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals wrote in Aronow v. United States.
In truth, the addition of the phrase to currency and its elevation to national motto status had everything to do with religion.
“The motto ‘In God We Trust’ was placed on United States coins largely because of the increased religious sentiment existing during the Civil War,” according to the U.S. Department of the Treasury.
The phrase became a national motto in 1956 during the height of the Red Scare. In contrast to “Godless commies,” our government was determined to embrace God. The government also added the phrase to our paper money and even amended the Pledge of Allegiance to include “under God.”
“I’m never going to apologize for loving God, loving America and loving the principles this country was founded on,” Sheriff Travis Allen of Jefferson County, Ill., told KFVS TV.
“In God We Trust” has always been about faith, but the Aronow decision has given courts a handy precedent to conclude otherwise. For 45 years, courts have cited the decision as authority that “In God We Trust” has no religious meaning. Finding otherwise is a no-win for a judge.
As long as government agencies say they’re simply honoring their country by posting its national motto, no one can mount a meaningful challenge.
All of this has to puzzle Donald Valenza, sheriff of Houston County, Ala.
Valenza placed decals with the words “blessed are the peacemakers” and a citation to Matthew 5:9 on his department’s vehicles. In short order, an organization called Americans United for Separation of Church and State demanded they be removed.
Instead of digging in, the county gave in.
It was a smart move. The decals clearly entangled the government in religion.
We live in a great nation, where each of us is free to believe as we wish. Government employees — including police — need to remember that their salaries are paid by citizens of multiple faiths — and none — and they can’t play favorites.
If the use of “In God We Trust” decals was really about patriotism and not honoring a deity, you’d likely see bumper stickers with an earlier national motto, a Latin phrase for unity, translated as “out of many, one.” In these divisive times, E Pluribus Unum has a particularly nice ring to it.
(Ken Paulson is the president of the Newseum Institute’s First Amendment Center, dean of the College of Media and Entertainment at Middle Tennessee State University and a member of USA TODAY’s Board of Contributors. This column first appeared in USA Today.)