A four-year-old urban legend found its way this morning onto a blog site that I follow, and I swallowed it—hook, line, and sinker. I even posted the story on my own site, where it remained until a visitor spotted it and informed me that it was a fraud.
The story was that a new U.S. dollar coin is about to be minted without the national motto, “In God We Trust.” The politically conservative blogmeister who passed this story my way was scandalized by such a brazen disregard for our nation’s religious heritage, and I was speechless with delight (the speechlessness lasted for only a few minutes). He has since removed the story and the appended comments, but I saved my copies of the comments, at least. Here they are:
My initial comment:
This release of the new dollar coin without the words “In God We Trust” is good news. These words did not become the national motto until 1956, when anti-Communist sentiment was at its all-time high in this country. The motto “E Pluribus Unum” (One from many) was used on the Great Seal of the U.S. starting in 1782, but it never became our country’s official motto.
We live in one of the most pluralistic societies in the history of the world. If we must place a motto on our dollar coin, then I would favor a return to “E Pluribus Unum,” which acknowledges our pluralism and the strength that we can draw from it as a nation. “In God We Trust” is inappropriate in a society where roughly 35 million people profess no religion at all and millions of others profess non-theistic religions.
The motto “In God We Trust” is appropriate for use in religious institutions and should be kept out of secular government, not only to protect government from intrusion by religion, but also to prevent the cheapening of the motto itself.
Response from “Ignatius”:
Your historical explanation leaves out a couple details. “In God We Trust“ began appearing on most U.S. coins in 1866 and has been on all U.S. coins since 1938. Connecting this to the anti-communist hysteria of the 1950s isn’t entirely fair.
I live in a country, Austria, where mentioning God among politicians and the people as a whole is seen as being in very bad taste. Because the U.S. is different in this respect, at least a little, my students have sometimes asked me about the American perspective and about this motto on our coins. It gives me a chance to explain the religious roots of our nation, as expounded by Alexis de Tocqueville among others.
Eliminating this motto is part of a larger process of denying our national heritage and undermining our ethical foundation. Why so many are trying to make our country into just another European-type dystopia is beyond me.
My response to Ignatius:
Ignatius, the official motto has a long and complex history. I decided to focus only on the history of its official status, but I thank you for the additional information.
My preference for “E Pluribus Unum” has less to do with denying our national heritage than with celebrating our nation’s pluralism, which has always been one of its greatest strengths. I think we can recognize the contributions of religion without actually placing an article of faith on our currency. The phrase “In God We Trust” is much more than an evocation of heritage; it is an actual claim, and a false one. Its effect on 35 million Americans is subtly exclusionary and even divisive, while “E Pluribus Unum” is broadly inclusive of all the different strains of belief and non-belief that have made this nation great. Your concern that eliminating “In God We Trust” will undermine our ethical foundation is, to me, the perfect illustration of the problem with that motto. You’ve implied that our ethical foundation is exclusively Judeo-Christian and that people outside that tradition will somehow undermine it. This is not a message that we want to stamp on our currency.
I later received the following comment from a friend who had read the exchange:
I would expect you to be challenged by someone living in Austria, but for different reasons. The idea of God as a partisan and ally of our objectives—whatever they may be—strikes a sour note with many Germans and Austrians, who are still repenting of Nazi Germany. Of course, if God (Hitler) is with us, who can be against us?