I wasn’t an English major, but it seems to me the phrase “In God We Trust” affirms only one thing: a collective trust in a deity.
Implicit in that affirmation, of course, is an underlying belief that a deity exists. Dissect the words any way you wish, but their literal meaning cannot stray far from that interpretation. (It’s noteworthy that “In God We Trust” is a complete sentence. Rearranged in more standard subject-verb-object order, it would read: “We Trust in God.”)
But if you believe today’s conservative culture warriors, “In God We Trust” has nothing to do with asserting God-belief. Having launched a campaign to plaster the phrase everywhere possible, conservative Christians now insist they aren’t trying to promote their theistic views. This fraud is playing out across the country, manifesting itself lately in campaigns to place the words on police cruisers, almost always under a false pretext that hides a religious motive.
For example, a city official in Shenandoah, Iowa, recently insisted his proposal to adorn all police cruisers in town with “In God We Trust” stickers is a way of recognizing the officers who drive them. “We felt it would be appropriate to use this term to honor our local law enforcement officers,” he told a local newspaper. Stunning logic indeed, to conclude that a four-word affirmation of God-belief might translate to a statement that honors municipal employees, but this is typical of the twisted reasoning so often used to promote religion in government.
The arguments were just as baffling in Childress, Texas, where the police chief, Adrian Garcia, justified large “In God We Trust” stickers on his department’s cruisers as a response to violence against police officers. Pointing not to any assaults on police in his own community but to an attack on an officer five hundred miles away in Houston, Garcia didn’t even attempt to explain any logical connection between the phrase “In God We Trust” and stopping police violence, but instead simply claimed the stickers would help society “get back to where we once were.”
Funny thing is, where we “once were” was a country that respected church-state separation. In fact, until recently few police departments in the United States ever adorned their vehicles with “In God We Trust.” Pandering Cold War politicians, together with religious activists, succeeded in making the phrase the national motto back in 1956, but only in recent years have we seen efforts to shove “In God We Trust” into our faces at every turn.
Those efforts have been led by religious conservatives who are offended that America’s secular demographic is growing and becoming increasingly visible. Threatened by this uptick in secularity, conservatives are responding by trying to seize the public realm, claim the moral high ground, and define patriotism and good citizenship through their theistic lenses. Fewer and fewer of us trust in God, but the religious right will never accept that simple fact.
Unfortunately, US courts have too often been fearful of blowback from the blowhards on the right, who tend to get apoplectic when courts rule against theistic language. Many of us recall the fiasco that ensued in 2002 when the Ninth Circuit ruled that “under God” violated the Establishment Clause. Religious conservatives were thrown into a tizzy and members of Congress rushed to the Capitol steps to recite the Pledge of Allegiance with the God-language.
Since then, courts have fairly consistently disregarded the plain meaning of governmental theistic language such as “In God We Trust.” To dodge the issue, courts adopt new, non-literal meanings that completely ignore the unambiguous affirmation of God-belief. In upholding “In God We Trust” as passing Establishment Clause scrutiny, for example, the Second Circuit last year declared that the phrase is a “reference to the country’s religious heritage.” Similar rationalizations have been used to defend “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance.
Even the most ardent nonbeliever would concede that the United States, like every other society in the world, has a “religious heritage.” What’s less clear, however, is that government would have any need to acknowledge that heritage in any way. We have a secular heritage as well, with many important figures who have challenged conventional thinking on religious issues (Paine, Jefferson, Ingersoll, Stanton, Twain, Du Bois, Darrow, and others), but we don’t see government “acknowledging” that heritage in any way.
And if we must acknowledge our religious heritage, it’s puzzling that we must do so via affirmative statements of theistic belief. It’s one thing to acknowledge a heritage, but quite another to promote core ideas from that heritage, as if they are universally accepted today. If we ever acknowledge America’s proud secular heritage, I doubt that we would do so by adopting phrases such as, “There is no God” or “We Trust No Gods,” as if there were unanimity on those questions.
A sheriff in Cowetta County, Georgia, was more forthright than most when he explained recently why he was putting “In God We Trust” stickers on his cruisers, acknowledging that it was about one main point: God-belief. Sheriff Mike Yeager “said the stickers are a reflection of the beliefs of a majority of his staff and the community he serves,” a local television station reported, adding that a local citizen confirmed that the citizenry is “deeply rooted in faith.”
Indeed, we all know “In God We Trust” has nothing to do with heritage and everything to do with existing religious beliefs. It’s nice to see that some Christians are at least honest about it.