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The complex history of ‘In God We Trust’

‘In God we Trust’ on dollar bills. Photo courtesy Stepan Lytovchenko/Shutterstock

(The Conversation) — In his first State of the Union address President Donald Trump sought to link religion with American identity.

“Together, we are rediscovering the American way. In America, we know that faith and family, not government and bureaucracy, are the center of the American life. The motto is ‘In God We Trust,’” Trump declared.

But the history of “In God We Trust” is more complex than Trump’s assertion suggests.

President Trump after his first State of the Union address.
Win McNamee/Pool via AP

That phrase, and similar invocations of God in national life, are relatively recent additions to America’s political language. From my perspective as a religious history scholar they reflect a particular view of the United States, not a universally accepted “American way.”

The Civil War

Political rhetoric linking the United States with a divine power emerged on a large scale with the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861. M.R. Watkinson, a Pennsylvania clergyman, encouraged the placement of “In God We Trust” on coins at the war’s outset in order to help the North’s cause. Such language, Watkinson wrote, would “place us openly under the divine protection.”

Putting the phrase on coins was just the beginning.

In 1864, with the Civil War still raging, a group supported by the North’s major Protestant denominations began advocating change to the preamble of the Constitution. The proposed language would have declared that Americans recognized “Almighty God as the source of all authority and power in civil government.”

If the amendment’s supporters had succeeded in having their way, Christian belief would be deeply embedded in the United States government.

But, such invocations of God in national politics were not to last. Despite lobbying by major Protestant denominations such as the Methodists, this so-called Sovereignty of God amendment was never ratified.

The 1849 liberty head design by James B. Longacre.
National Numismatic Collection, National Museum of American History via Wikimedia Commons.

Though “In God We Trust” was added to coins, it was not added to the increasingly common paper money. In fact, when coins were redesigned late in the 19th century, it disappeared from coins as well.

As I demonstrate in my book, these developments were related to the spread of secularism in the post-Civil War U.S. For many people at the time, placing religious language in the Constitution or on symbols of government was not consistent with American ideals.

The revival of “In God We Trust”

The 1950s, however, witnessed a dramatic resurgence of religious language in government and politics. It was that decade that brought “In God We Trust” into widespread use.

In 1955, President Dwight Eisenhower signed a bill placing the phrase on all American currency. One sponsor of that legislation, Congressman Charles Bennett, echoed the sentiments that had inspired the Sovereignty of God amendment during the Civil War. Bennett proclaimed, that the U.S. “was founded in a spiritual atmosphere and with a firm trust in God.”

The next year, “In God We Trust” was adopted as the first official motto of the United States.

U.S. Capitol ‘In God We Trust’ plaque.
USCapitol

Both of these developments reflected the desire to emphasize Americans’ religious commitment in the early years of the Cold War. Historians such as Jonathan Herzog have chronicled how leaders ranging from President Eisenhower to the evangelist Billy Graham stressed on the strong faith of the nation in setting the U.S. apart from the godlessness of Soviet communism.

Recently, however, Princeton University historian Kevin Kruse has shown that religious language was not merely rhetoric against communism. “In God We Trust” reflected domestic concerns as well.

The belief in American religiosity that put “In God We Trust” on coins and made it the national motto in the 1950s had emerged over several decades. Conservative businessmen had allied with ministers, including Billy Graham, to combat the social welfare policies and government expansion that began with Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. These wide-ranging programs, designed to tackle the Great Depression, irked many conservatives. They objected to government intervention in business and Roosevelt’s support for labor unions.

As Kruse notes, this alliance of conservative business leaders and ministers linked “faith, freedom, and free enterprise.”

In this way then, President Trump’s assertion on Jan. 30 that “In God We Trust” could well be said to reflect certain American values. But, as my research shows, for much of U.S. history, the acceptance of such values ebbed and flowed.

The Conversation“In God We Trust” is a not a motto that reflects universally shared historical values. Rather it represents a particular political, economic and religious perspective – one that is embraced by President Trump and the modern GOP.

(David Mislin is an assistant professor for Temple University’s Intellectual Heritage Program. He wrote this article for The Conversation, where it was first published.)

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David Mislin

25 Comments

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  • “In God we Trust” as a motto is basically un-American, presumptuous and rude. We should return to
    “E Pluribus Unum” which covers the American story with far more accuracy and dignity.

  • Mislin asserts: “That phrase [“In God We Trust”] , and similar invocations of God in national life, are relatively recent additions to America’s political language.” In reality, they go back to the beginning.

    The Declaration of Independence (adopted in 1776) ends with the sentence: “And for the support of this declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor.”

    The Great Seal of the United States (approved in 1782) – which appears on the back of the one dollar bill – has on its reverse “A Pyramid unfinished. In the Zenith an Eye in a triangle surrounded with a glory proper. Over the Eye these words ‘Annuit Cœptis’. Charles Thomson, its designer, explained its meaning: “The Eye over it & the Motto allude to the many signal interpositions of providence in favour of the American cause.”

    The last verse of “The Star-Spangled Banner” (written by Francis Scott Key in 1814) reads in part:
    Blest with vict’ry and peace, may the Heav’n rescued land
    Praise the Power that hath made and preserved us a nation!
    Then conquer we must, when our cause it is just,
    And this be our motto: ‘In God is our trust.’

  • The Declaration’s reference to a deity was probably due to our war with a country that accepted the notion of the “divine right of kings.” Such language was omitted from our 1787 Constitution.

  • Good article. It is interesting to note that we won both World Wars I and II without the motto, while our German adversary in both wars had the motto “Gott mit uns” (God with us) on their troops’ belt buckles. — Edd Doerr

  • Oh for crying out loud… read both John Locke and Blackstone’s Commentaries and see if you recognize anything. Good grief.

  • This article added to my understanding of this issue. I was aware of the anti-Communist underpinning of the adoption of the motto, but not of the conservative economic side of it. Thanks.

  • Since there are many who do not believe in god, and by extension, do not trust in him, it is a stupid motto.

  • And the third verse reads, in part:
    “No refuge could save the hireling and slave
    From the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave, ”

    What does this say about our shared beliefs?

  • President Theodore Roosevelt tried to have In God We Trust removed from the coinage. He considered it profane. I own one of the motto-less 1908 Double Eagles.

  • There is no god. It’s a plot to keep the poor in poverty. Jesus tried and was killed for his temerity. Now the religious right has turned Jesus into “Jesus CEO.”

  • The first three mottoes in our “FUGIO” currency, approved twice by the Continental Congress, in Feb 1776 and again in Jul 1787, were
    (a) WE ARE ONE (in English),
    (b) MIND YOUR BUSINESS, and
    (c) FUGIO (Latin for ‘I flee’) next to the sun shining on a sundial, which represented Time – it meant “Time Flies”.

    Interestingly, Maryland’s “prolix Mister (Luther) Martin” was probably the first one to use the expression “Christian Nation” in his verbose report to the Maryland legislature, after he left the Constitutional Convention because other delegates disagreed with much of what he blabbered about. To him it was very clear that the Constitution is NOT religious, and that he was unhappy about it.

  • It seems to me that if you constantly need a reminder of the thing you claim you trust..then……you don’t really trust it.

  • But the Constitution states the government and the liberties it protects comes from the authority of ..the people. No gods mentioned.

  • For years I have marked out “GOD” on all the money that goes through my hands. I am in charge of a retail register, so it’s actually quite a bit. Lately I have marked it out with a large “1A” that is short for 1st Amendment. Sharpies work well.

  • Anytime we resort to bumper-sticker philosophy, we lose a lot of common sense between the cracks. Personally, I think that stamping “In God We Trust” on our coinage is the greatest, most prevalent example of violating the 3rd commandment – misusing the name of God.

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