“In God We Trust.” Where Politics Meets Piety.

By Ken Burrows

In May of 2010, Congressional Resolution 274 was introduced into the U.S. House, with its stated purpose being to reaffirm “In God We Trust” as the official motto of the United States and to encourage the display of this motto in all public buildings, public schools, and other government institutions. The resolution garnered more than 100 co-sponsors, including Congressmen Doug Lamborn and Mike Coffman of Colorado. In June it was referred to the Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Civil Liberties, with no formal action taken. It is almost certain to be reintroduced in the more right-leaning Congress of 2011.

What underlies this resolution? Do its rationales hold up under scrutiny? Might it cause any harm? It bears a closer look.

As with many resolutions, the rationales behind this one are found in its introductory whereas’s. Resolution 274 makes clear its desire to put God front and center.  The language goes to great lengths to find support for the proposition both in current practice and in history. This, however, also uncovers the weakness, contradiction and potential harm marking this resolution.

Fudging the History

For example, one whereas states that “the sentiment ‘In God We Trust’ has been an integral part of United States society since its founding.” It had no choice but to use the qualifying term “sentiment” because the motto as currently worded had no formal existence until it appeared on a two-cent coin during the time of the Civil War. This was largely in response to a Pennsylvania minister (Mark Richard Watkinson) who petitioned Treasury Secretary Salmon Chase to add “God” to coins because he (Watkinson) thought the war was God’s punishment for the country failing to recognize the deity in the Constitution. Only in 1908 did a law pass requiring “In God We Trust” on all coins, and it wasn’t required on paper money until 1957, about the time Congress voted to make “In God We Trust” the national motto.

The Blanket Inclusion that Excludes

Another whereas states that “in times of national challenge or tragedy, the people of the United States have turned to God as their source for sustenance, protection, wisdom, strength and direction.” One cannot fail to note that the implicitly all-inclusive “the people” leaves out the millions of citizens who do not turn to God at these same times. They are obviously not included among the “We” in the motto. This does not trouble the resolution’s supporters in the slightest since the motto pledges trust to theirown preferred God. It’s a fine but relevant point of marginalization that perhaps does not register in their minds.

Wherefore the Constitution?

Next comes a whereas citing the Declaration of Independence as recognizing God to be the source of our rights. Tellingly, the resolution does not cite the Constitution as the source of our rights, even though it supersedes the Declaration for this purpose. Why the omission? Because the Constitution is, by conscious intent of its writers, a secular document that doesn’t mention God and it sources our rights in “We the people.” (Interesting side note: the Declaration was signed by only one minister, Rev. John Witherspoon, who went on to play an influential role in church-state separation.) The resolution does mention the Constitution, taking an oblique swipe at it by saying it “rejects the notion that the laws and Constitution of the United States require the exclusion of God from matters of government and public life.” This is a straw man argument because the laws and Constitution do not require such exclusion to begin with; they merely define the acceptable parameters for inclusion so that individual rights and equality are protected. Overall, this failure to mention the Constitution as a source of rights and the accompanying backhanded reference to it lead one to ask why the resolution’s drafters appear to be so uncomfortable with this document that espouses our most revered rights, freedoms, and principles of governance.

Getting it Backwards

There are three distinct uses-in-practice of the motto that are cited in the whereas’ of the resolution. These include the national anthem, the appearance of the motto over the entrance to the Senate Chamber and above the House Speaker’s rostrum, and its inclusion in an oath taken by all federal employees. Clearly, other uses could have been cited, but it matters not because here the logic is flawed in an attempt to reverse engineer the reasoning. The fact of past motto usage is hardly a justification for wider future usage any more than the historic existence of racially discriminatory laws would have justified expanding those laws further. The pertinent question at hand is whether expanding government endorsement of this motto is appropriate in the first place. (This will be addressed shortly.)

Finding Supporters from History.  Or not.

Lastly the resolution seeks support for itself in the words of former presidents. First up is John Adams, quoted as insisting that religion and morality alone establish the principles upon which freedom stands. Then comes Eisenhower and Ford, quoted as stating that without God there can be no American form of government. Finally, Kennedy is quoted as saying the guiding principle of the nation will always be “In God We Trust.”

A few more interesting side notes come to mind here regarding where these past presidents stood on the intersection of religion and government. John Adams was not a fierce church-state separation advocate in the mold of Jefferson or Madison, but even Adams, in a 1765 dissertation, called the collusion between church and state a “wicked confederacy.” He was himself a Unitarian, a religion that historically stood for church-state separation. When Georgia sent Rev. John Zubly to the Continental Congress, boasting that he’d be the first clergyman to serve there, Adams was reported to have responded: “I cannot but wish he be the last.” As for Eisenhower, he “found religion” for political reasons, having been a member of no church until he was running for president. Upon meeting Rev. Billy Graham, Eisenhower concluded people would not follow anyone who was not a member of a church. So he joined one. He wasn’t actually baptized until after being elected. Kennedy’s stance on church-state separation is, of course, best known from his 1960 speech to the Houston Ministerial Association in which he said: “I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute.” In a Lookmagazine article that he authored the preceding year, Kennedy also wrote: “Whatever one’s religion in his private life, nothing takes precedence over the office holder’s oath to uphold the Constitution in all its parts, including the First Amendment requirements of the separation of church and state.”

Conspicuous by Their Absence

But what is particularly curious, and also seems telling, is that in citing the words of prominent leaders of our past, the drafters of Resolution 274 make no mention of either the person who wrote the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson, or the chief architect of the Constitution, James Madison. Can it be because one would not find support for a resolution like 274 in the words and actions of these two founders?

If so, and this is important to note, it would not be because either Jefferson or Madison was anti-God. Indeed, both were believers. But Jefferson said religion was a subject on which he remained “scrupulously reserved” because he considered it “a matter between every man and his Maker, in which no other, and far less the public, has a right to intermingle.” “It is error alone which needs the support of government,” he said. “Truth can stand by itself.” As for whether freedom relies on any particular morality, he insisted that “our civil rights have no dependence on our religious opinions.” In fact he called differences of opinion “advantageous in religion” and was famously quoted as saying “It does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods, or no god.” His thoughts on a national religious motto might best be inferred by his statement: “It is in our lives and not in our words that our religion must be read.”

Madison’s views are well known from his “Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments,” his 15-point rebuttal to a proposal in 1785 to levy a tax for the support of religious teachers. Here he showed keen discernment, for while he alluded to a duty to render homage to the Creator, he said for each man this must always be “such homage, and only such, as he believes acceptable.” This flowed naturally from Madison’s belief that “the religion of every man must be left to the conviction and conscience of every man.” He went so far as to specifically make room for non-believers when he wrote: “While we assert for ourselves a freedom to embrace, to profess, and to observe the religion which we believe to be of divine origin, we cannot deny an equal freedom to those whose minds have not yet yielded to the evidence which has convinced us.”

These two founders, unlike many elected leaders of our current day, had a much deeper appreciation of the nuances involved in keeping religion and government separated as the only way to guarantee genuine religious liberty. They saw this as critical and also as distinct from their own personal faith convictions.  They were able and willing to distinguish between what the individual privately believes and what the government should be said to “believe” in a religiously free and pluralistic society. This bright light of discerning sensibility has dimmed considerably in the halls of power over the past 230 years.

“The Erroneous Idea of a National Religion”

More specifically, regarding government recommendations in the arena of religion, Madison in a post-presidency Detached Memorandum, said “the members of a government can in no sense be regarded as possessing an advisory trust from their constituents in their religious capacities. They cannot…issue decrees or injunctions addressed to the faith or the consciences of the people. … [Such actions] seem to imply and certainly nourish the erroneous idea of a national religion.”

This is, in fact, the danger lurking in things like Resolution 274. It nourishes the idea of a national religion by conveying a national trust in God, even though there is no unanimity about this throughout the citizenry. Some might call having such a motto an innocuous ceremonial deism, and in fact courts have used a rationale like that to avoid running afoul of the separation principle in the First Amendment as they give a pass to similar God references that have at least an indirect government endorsement (see footnote below*). But is ceremonial deism what we want religion to be used for? Others might see this motto as an insidious wedge of quasi-theocracy; to this we should ask: Is that what we as a nation want to be about?

It is hard to know the motives of people promoting resolutions like this. Some may do so out of sincere religious devotion, though that sincerity nonetheless does not give them license to impose their devotion on all. Given the unholy mix of religion and politics today, it is certainly likely that some who back such a resolution are simply manipulating religion to serve a political end, engaging in a utilitarian, pandering piety that diminishes the very faith it purports to elevate.

Given all this, the wisest resolution will be to resolve not to promote resolutions like 274. At a minimum, it’s fair to say it is constructed on an uncertain historical foundation. It ignores, even contradicts, core principles known to be held by founders who crafted the rights and freedoms we enjoy today. Its only reference to the Constitution is a negative one. It harbors threats to religious equality, especially in light of what the two most prominent authors of our religious liberties had to say about safeguarding them. These authors, Jefferson and Madison, summed it up about as succinctly as possible in a communication between the two of them, when Madison wrote to Jefferson in January 1786, in an unusual mood of optimism: “I flatter myself [that] this country [has] extinguished forever the ambitious hope of making laws for the human mind.”

Madison’s enthusiasm was far too premature. For when it comes to the mix of government and religion, Resolution 274 reminds us that misguided ventures in dictating what we should believe have not gone away.

(* Final side note: In 2004 Dr. Michael Newdow presented his case to the Supreme Court, arguing that the words “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance amounted to an unconstitutional government endorsement of religion. Citing the precedent of the doctrine of neutrality in religious matters that several of the sitting justices had affirmed in preceding cases of their own over the years, Newdow said: “Members of this court have said that we need neutrality, and here we have the quintessential religious question, does there exist a God? And government comes in [and says] yes, there exists a God. That is not neutrality by any means.” Newdow eventually lost his case on the technicality of not having standing to bring it; the Court as a whole did not decide the constitutional issue. In her concurring opinion, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor did elaborate by saying Newdow had raised a “close question” under the Establishment Clause, but she felt “under God” in this case was a permissible form of “ceremonial deism” that should be “properly understood as employing the idiom for essentially secular purposes,” much like it’s used on coins and in the national motto. Despite losing his case, Newdow was widely praised for his presentation, and after he had finished, a lawyer whose brief had vigorously defended the Pledge came over and shook Newdow’s hand and told him: “Mike, I just want you to know that you made a superb argument.” Yes, even that opposing lawyer, Kenneth Starr, acknowledged that there’s a case to be made for questioning how far we should go in intersecting God with government)

Citizens Project’s Note: Although an identical resolution to 274 has not yet been introduced in 2011, we will remain vigilant to ensure that our supporters are aware of national and local legislation that infringe on the separation of church and state.

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