When police embrace ‘In God We Trust’ (COMMENTARY)

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Sgt. Cuzzort, left, and Sherriff Rader of the Stone County Sherriff's Office in Missouri, stand in front of a patrol vehicle with a 'In God We Trust' bumper sticker. Photo courtesy of Stone County Sherriff's Office

Sgt. Cuzzort, left, and Sherriff Rader of the Stone County Sherriff's Office in Missouri, stand in front of a patrol vehicle with a 'In God We Trust' bumper sticker. Photo courtesy of Stone County Sherriff's Office

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.)

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  • George Nixon Shuler

    As support for forced religion goes down, those pushing for it grow increasingly more shrill and silly. If anyone has had the misfortune to have turned into a contemporary country western radio station, you can hear this at least hourly, mostly more. The right-wing opponents of the New Deal were rightfully worried about communism as World War II ended and strategized on how to fight it. They found average working folks didn’t find making the rich pay their fair share to be a bad idea, so they decided on the religion thing as a hook. The “Under God” was added to the Pledge in 1954 at the urging of the Knights of Columbus, that Catholic adult male fraternal organization which like The American Legion at the time, supplied a good portion of the right-wing’s useful idiots.

  • edwords

    What will it look like in a news photo, to see In God We Trust decals on a
    police car, at the scene of a terrible church bus crash? (God forbid)

  • This childish movement to place “In God We Trust” on all Government things
    is a direct attack on the Constitution.

    No government vehicle should be advertising a religion. It is shameful and embarrassing as an American.

    “Congress shall make no law establishing a religion…” – US Constitution

    So…You may trust in God privately but these cars are owned by the people! Get these childish religious signs off these cars!

  • Jon

    How can anyone seriously wonder if Christian privilege exists when stuff like this not only happens, but is defended by some, and even allowed to continue? .

  • MarkE

    To my (Christian) mind, I am more offended by the idea that IGWT is considered not to be a religious sentiment but a patriotic sentiment. That ruling and those who support it/rely on it to justify their actions are inherently dismissing the religious foundation of that phrase! Faith in God and religious observance is cheapened and devalued if there is no religious significance to it. Just as adding to the end of each political address “May God bless the United States of America” loses its strencth and validity when overused or said without forethought. If IGWT is not religious, then what is?

  • Polski Ogorki

    There is much to fear in police embrace. It can be very powerful embracing and limit freedom of movement.

  • Fran

    My trust and faith is solely based in God and his kingdom or heavenly government (Daniel 2:44; Matthew 4:17), since I am a theocrat, and my trust and faith is not in man nor his governments. I will respect man’s governments and its laws (as long as they don’t conflict with God’s laws) and pay its required taxes while they are “allowed” to operate by God (paying Caesar’s things to Caesar). However, I also believe that God should bless ALL good-hearted and meek persons on our planet, not just those in the U.S.A.

  • Sukhamaya (Sam) Bain

    “In God We Trust” is obviously about faith. To call it ‘about patriotism’ (love for the country) would be tantamount to calling the country ‘God’s country’, not a country that separates God from the state. In a country where religious faith is neither favored not disfavored, individual police officers should be allowed to put “In God I Trust” on the car that he/she uses, if that gives him/her some sense of personal safety in the job that requires him/her to risk his/her life. But “In God We Trust” should not be a motto for any kind of government organizations in the USA, if we are to claim that we have separated the state from religion(s). And all sensible countries would be expected to keep religion out of the business of the state.

  • Fran

    And all sensible religions that believed in God would be expected to keep politics out of their religions, a separation of church and state.

  • Fran


    The best is yet to come, from
    God, to us humans on earth, and I look forward to it with keen enthusiasm and happiness! I’m always for sharing good news.

  • Junebug

    Where is that police trust in God when confronted with a black kid with a toy gun, ET. AL.??

  • Larry

    Thank you for demonstrating why the claim that it somehow belongs on public property is completely without merit.

    You are absolutely correct.

    It is a purely religious statement. The whole “patriotic statement” reasons doesn’t even ring true of the supporters of “In God We Trust”. The claim that it is not has always been a weak, fact free, excuse to keep it around.

    You know its religious. The people putting it on know its religious. Its purely meant to claim public resources for the religious faith of those putting it on things. Under the Establishment Clause such a blatant endorsement of sectarian religious faith cannot be tolerated.

  • Alan

    The fact that police carry guns is evidence that they don’t trust in God.

    Gods are fictional characters so trusting in them seems silly at best. God is also the name of a confidence scam, and scams are generally considered illegal except when they are called religious. What does it say that police trust in a scam?