“In God We Trust” has been the official motto of the United States of America since 1956, according to The First Amendment Encyclopedia by the Free Speech Center of Middle Tennessee State University. Although the U.S.’s motto was signed into law by a Christian president, federal courts have regularly upheld the motto as being in-line with the U.S. Constitution. Regardless of court precedence, having “In God We Trust” as the legal motto of the U.S. defies the First Amendment due to favorable treatment to Christianity over other religions by the government.
The Establishment Clause of the First Amendment states, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion…,” which is commonly referred to as “separation of Church and State.” Although the Supreme Court has stated that the written protections between Church and State are vague, they do agree that the First Amendment “insure[s] that no religion be sponsored or favored, none commanded, and none inhibited,” according to the U.S. Congress website.
The saying “In God We Trust” was first present in the U.S. government during the Civil War in 1864, appearing on coins, according to TIMES. The choice to put the motto on money was prompted by citizens, “When religious sentiment was on an upswing and concerned Americans wanted the world to know what their country stood for,” the TIMES article states. It was later taken off of currency by order of President Theodore Roosevelt in 1907, according to the article, who believed mingling money and the name of God was sacrilegious. However, TIMES said the public response prompted the motto to be reinstated on coins soon after. In 1955, “In God We Trust” was printed on all paper money by order of Congress. President Eisenhower finally signed the motto into officiality in 1956, according to the History Channel’s website.
The motto is not unconstitutional, according to precedent set by several Supreme Court rulings and actions. Recently, in 2018, the Supreme Court rejected a case attempting to overturn the use of the motto stating, “the phrase ‘does not compel citizens to engage in religion,’” according to JURIST Legal News, an organization collaborating with the University of Pittsburgh. The Court’s dismissal reasoning does not make sense due to the current social and historical context of the U.S. Those who practice minority religions simply may feel pressure to accommodate to what the government upholds for safety/security reasons. More than 70% of all people who say they are religious in the U.S. are Christian, and more than 25% of that number consider themselves Evangelical Protestants, according to the Pew Research Center. In a country where 15.1% of all hate crimes (according to 2021 statistics from the U.S. Department of Justice) are directed toward religious minorities and non-Protestant Christians, I can imagine how uncomfortable it would be to practice a less-common religion and see “In God We Trust” supported by my supposedly un-biased government (check out a story by NPR where a Texas public school corporation rejected including “In God We Trust” signs in Arabic in buildings). It is also important to note that religious minorities constitute the large majority of all religion-motivated hate crimes, according to the DoJ. For example, Muslims make up less than 1% of all who consider themselves religious in the U.S., according to Pew, but account for 9.6% of all religiously-motivated hate crimes, per the Department of Justice.
According to former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, the use of “In God We Trust” is a form of “ceremonial deism.” Ceremonial deism simply means that the meaning of something in religious context has been exhausted and transformed into something else merely historical and representational of things other than its original religious interpretation, according to a paper published by the University of Miami Law School. Despite the court rulings, I certainly make a mental connection between the government and the Christian God when I see “In God We Trust” on all the money I touch, the license plates of countless cars I drive past, and official buildings (including public schools) I visit—and I am not alone, according to the Freedom From Religion Foundation. And, if the phrase once did have religious meaning, does that not entail that its founding was against the U.S. Constitution from the very beginning? And, if so, has the meaning really changed that much?
It is crucial to examine those who initiated “In God We Trust” and those who continue to defend its use. As a country founded by Protestant Christians flocking from Catholic England, there is little denying Christianity had a great effect on the creation and duration of the U.S. When the phrase first appeared on coins during the Civil War, it was due to public urgence during a time of heightened emotions and religion (those exposed to war are more likely to be religious, according to researchers). The man who signed the motto into law, President Eisenhower, was a life-long Christian, according to the History channel. Today, those who support “In God We Trust” staying in government seem to be mostly Conservative Christians. A resolution from the House Judiciary Committee from the 2011-2012 congressional term titled “Reaffirming “In God We Trust” As The Official Motto Of The United States and Supporting And Encouraging The Public Display Of The National Motto In All Public Buildings, Public Schools, And Other Government Institutions” was sponsored by Representative Randy Forbes (R-Virginia) and 64 other cosponsors (largely Republican), according to Congress’s website. The resolution easily passed in a Republican-controlled House. If one looks up “In God We Trust” on Google, many results from religious organizations such as the Congressional Prayer Caucus Foundation. One result takes you to the In God We Trust Foundation’s website. The first thing visitors see is “Christian patriots proudly show their love faith, family, and & the U.S.A.” advertising an “In God We Trust” license plate for Florida.
Context is key in this topic, just like it is in any other court case. I ponder this and ask myself, “Is it fair to minorities that the majority of the people who support “In God We Trust” are Christian—and the majority of religious believers in the U.S. are also Christian?” I think not. I believe it is okay and honorable to realize that heritage is problematic or not always right (I think of loose examples such as World War II and current Germany & the Confederate Army and the modern Confederate flag). The people who came before us made mistakes, but learning and growing from those mistakes is what life is all about. In the end, why can we not switch to another historical phrase with a uniting connotation such as ‘E Pluribus Unum’ (out of many, one)? I think that it is historical, inclusive, and does not offend the Constitution. Change is okay—and, sometimes, change is necessary. As a country, let us make the choice to uphold our founding principles of religious equality and uncorrupted government by disavowing “In God We Trust” as the U.S.’s official motto.