While speaking on June 14, 1954, Flag Day, President Dwight D. Eisenhower talked about the importance of reaffirming religious faith in America’s heritage and future, that doing so would “constantly strengthen those spiritual weapons which forever will be our country’s most powerful resource, in peace or in war.” In 1864 during the Civil War, the phrase “In God We Trust” first appeared on U.S. coins. On July 30, 1956, “In God We Trust” became the nation’s motto as President Eisenhower signed into law a bill declaring it, along with having the motto printed in capital letters, on every United States denomination of paper currency.
“The Hand of providence has been so conspicuous in all this, that he must be worse than an infidel that lacks faith, and more than wicked, that has not gratitude enough to acknowledge his obligations.” George Washington, 1778.[i]
“It becomes a people publicly to acknowledge the over-ruling hand of Divine Providence and their dependence upon the Supreme Being as their Creator and Merciful Preserver . . .” Samuel Huntington, 1791.[ii]
“We are a religious people whose institutions presuppose a Supreme Being.” Associate Justice William O. Douglas, 1952.[iii]
One of the most enduring battles in American politics has been over the question of whether America is or ever was a Christian Nation. For Supreme Court Associate Justice David Brewer the answer was simple: yes. The United States was formed as and, in Brewer’s 1892 at least, still was, a Christian Nation. The Justice said as much in Church of the Holy Trinity vs. United States. But his simple answer did not go unsupported.
“[I]n what sense can [the United States] be called a Christian nation? Not in the sense that Christianity is the established religion or the people are compelled in any manner to support it…Neither is it Christian in the sense that all its citizens are either in fact or in name Christians. On the contrary, all religions have free scope within its borders. Numbers of our people profess other religions, and many reject all…Nevertheless, we constantly speak of this republic as a Christian Nation – in fact, as the leading Christian Nation of the world. This popular use of the term certainly has significance. It is not a mere creation of the imagination. It is not a term of derision but has substantial basis – on which justifies its use. Let us analyze a little and see what is the basis.”[iv]
Brewer went on, of course, to do just that.
Regrettably, it lies beyond the scope of this short essay to repeat Brewer’s arguments. In 1905, Brewer re-assembled them into a book: The United States a Christian Nation. It was republished in 2010 by American Vision and is worth the read.[v] For the purposes of this essay I will stipulate, with Brewer, that America is a Christian nation. If that be the case, it should come as no surprise that such a nation would take the advice of Samuel Huntington and openly acknowledge its trust in God on multiple occasions and in a variety of ways: on its coinage, for instance. How we came to do that as a nation is an interesting story stretching over much of our history.
Trusting God was a familiar concept to America’s settlers – they spoke and wrote of it often. Their Bibles, at least one in every home, contained many verses encouraging believers to place their trust in God,[vi] and early Americans knew their Bible.[vii] Upon surviving the perilous voyage across the ocean, their consistent first act was to thank the God of the Bible for their safety.
Benjamin Franklin’s volunteer Pennsylvania militia of 1747-1748 reportedly had regimental banners displaying “In God We Trust.”[viii] In 1776, our Declaration of Independence confirmed the signers had placed “a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence.”[ix] In 1814, Francis Scott Key penned his famous poem which eventually became our national anthem. The fourth stanza contains the words: “Then conquer we must, when our cause is just, and this be our motto: ‘In God is our trust.’”
In 1848, construction began on the first phase of the Washington Monument (it was not completed until 1884). “In God We Trust” sits among Bible verses chiseled on the inside walls and “Praise God” (“Laus Deo” in Latin) can be found on its cap plate. But it would be another thirteen years before someone suggested putting a “recognition of the Almighty God” on U.S. coins.
That someone, Pennsylvania minister M. R. Watkinson, wrote to Salmon P. Chase, Abraham Lincoln’s Secretary of the Treasury, and suggested that such a recognition of the Almighty God would “place us openly under the Divine protection we have personally claimed.” Watkinson suggested the words “PERPETUAL UNION” and “GOD, LIBERTY, LAW.” Chase liked the basic idea but not Watkinson’s suggestions. He instructed James Pollock, Director of the Mint at Philadelphia, to come up with a motto for the coins: “The trust of our people in God should be declared on our national coins. You will cause a device to be prepared without unnecessary delay with a motto expressing in the fewest and tersest words possible this national recognition (emphasis mine).
Secretary Chase “wordsmithed” Director Pollock’s suggestions a bit and came up with his “tersest” words: “IN GOD WE TRUST,” which was ordered to be so engraved by an Act of Congress on April 22, 1864. First to bear the words was the 1864 two-cent coin.
The following year, another Act of Congress allowed the Mint Director to place the motto on all gold and silver coins that “shall admit the inscription thereon.” The motto was promptly placed on the gold double-eagle coin, the gold eagle coin, and the gold half-eagle coin. It was also minted on silver coins, and on the nickel three-cent coin beginning in 1866.
One might guess that the phrase has appeared on all U.S. coins since 1866 – one would be wrong.
The U.S. Treasury website explains (without further details) that “the motto disappeared from the five-cent coin in 1883, and did not reappear until production of the Jefferson nickel began in 1938.” The motto was also “found missing from the new design of the double-eagle gold coin and the eagle gold coin shortly after they appeared in 1907. In response to a general demand, Congress ordered it restored, and the Act of May 18, 1908, made it mandatory on all coins upon which it had previously appeared” [x] (emphasis added). I’m guessing someone got fired over that disappearance act. Since 1938, all United States coins have borne the phrase. None others have had it “go missing.”
The date 1956 was a watershed year. As you read in the introduction to this essay, that year, President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed a law (P.L. 84-140) which declared “In God We Trust” to be the national motto of the United States. The bill had passed the House and the Senate unanimously and without debate. The following year the motto began appearing on U.S. paper currency, beginning with the one-dollar silver certificate. The Treasury gradually included it as part of the back design of all classes and denominations of currency.
Our story could end there – but it doesn’t.
There is no doubt Founding Era Americans would have welcomed the phrase on their currency had someone suggested it, but it turns out some Americans today have a problem with it – a big problem.
America’s atheists continue to periodically challenge the constitutionality of the phrase appearing on government coins. The first challenge occurred in 1970; Aronow v. United States would not be the last. Additional challenges were mounted in 1978 (O’Hair v. Blumenthal) and 1979 (Madalyn Murray O’Hair vs W. Michael Blumenthal). Each of these cases was decided at the circuit court level against the plaintiff, with the court affirming that the “primary purpose of the slogan was secular.”
“Each value judgment under the Religion Clauses must therefore turn on whether particular acts in question are intended to establish or interfere with religious beliefs and practices or have the effect of doing so. [xi]
Having the national motto on currency neither established nor interfered with “religious beliefs and practices.”
In 2011, in case some needed a reminder, the House of Representatives passed a new resolution reaffirming “In God We Trust” as the official motto of the United States by a 396–9 vote (recall that the 1956 vote had been unanimous, here in the 21st century it was not).
Undaunted by the courts’ previous opinions on the matter, atheist activist Michael Newdow brought a new challenge in 2019 — and lost in the Eighth Circuit. The Supreme Court (on April 23, 2020) declined to hear the appeal. At my count, Newdow is now 0-5. His 2004 challenge[xii] that the words “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance violated the First Amendment was a bust, as was his 2009 attempt to block Chief Justice John Roberts from including the phrase “So help me God” when administering the presidential oath of office to Barack Obama. He tried to stop the phrase from being recited in the 2013 and 2017 inaugurations as well – each time unsuccessfully.
In spite of atheist challenges, or perhaps because of them, our national motto is enjoying a bit of resurgence of late, at least in the more conservative areas of the country:
In 2014, the Mississippi legislature voted to add the words, “In God We Trust” to their state seal.
In 2015, Jefferson County, Illinois decided to put the national motto on their police squad cars. Many other localities followed suit, including York County, Virginia, and Bakersfield, California, in 2019.
In March, 2017, Arkansas required their public schools to display posters which included the national motto. Similar laws were passed in Florida (2018), Tennessee (2018), South Dakota (2019) and Louisiana (2019).
On March 3, 2020, the Oklahoma House of Representatives passed a bill that would require all public buildings in the state to display the motto. Kansas, Indiana, and Oklahoma are considering similar bills.
But here is the question which lies at the heart of this issue: Does America indeed trust in God?
I think it is clear that America’s Founders, by and large did – at least they said and acted as though they did. But when you look around the United States today, outside of some limited activity on Sunday mornings and on the National Day of Prayer, does America actually trust in God? There is ample evidence we trust in everything, anything, but God.
Certainly we seem to trust in science, or what passes for science today. We put a lot of trust in public education, it would seem, even though the results are quite unimpressive and the curriculum actually works to undermine trust in God. Finally, we put a lot of trust in our elected officials even though they betray that trust with alarming regularity.[xiii]
Perhaps citizens of the United States need to see our motto on our currency, on school and court room walls to simply remind us of what we should be doing, and doing more often.
“America trusts in God,” we declare. Do we mean it?
“And those who know your name put their trust in you, for you, O Lord, have not forsaken those who seek you.” Psalm 9:10 ESV
Gary Porter is Executive Director of the Constitution Leadership Initiative (CLI), a project to promote a better understanding of the U.S. Constitution by the American people. CLI provides seminars on the Constitution, including one for young people utilizing “Our Constitution Rocks” as the text. Gary presents talks on various Constitutional topics, writes periodic essays published on several different websites, and appears in period costume as James Madison, explaining to public and private school students “his” (i.e., Madison’s) role in the creation of the Bill of Rights and the Constitution. Gary can be reached at email@example.com, on Facebook or Twitter (@constitutionled).
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[i] Letter to Thomas Nelson, August 20, 1778.
[ii] Samuel Huntington was a signer of the Declaration Of Independence; President of Congress;
Judge; and Governor of Connecticut. Quoted from A Proclamation for a Day of Fasting, Prayer and Humiliation, March 9, 1791.
[iii] Zorach v. Clauson, 343 U.S. 306 (1952).
[iv] Church of the Holy Trinity v. United States, 143 U.S. 457 (1892).
[vi] Examples include: Psalm 56:3, Isaiah 26:4, Psalm 20:7, Proverbs 3:5-6 and Jeremiah 17:7.
[vii] “Their many quotations from and allusions to both familiar and obscure scriptural passages confirms that [America’s Founders] knew the Bible from cover to cover.” Daniel L. Driesbach, 2017, Reading the Bible with the Founding Fathers, Oxford University Press, p.1
[viii] See https://historynewsnetwork.org/article/161178
[ix] Thomas Jefferson, Declaration of Independence, July 1776.
[xii] Newdow v. United States, 328 F.3d 466 (9th Cir. 2004)