In God We Trust. The four short words of the U.S. motto are long on irony:

• In the early 1900s President Theodore Roosevelt wanted them deleted from coinage; he felt their use was “dangerously close to sacrilege.”

• In 1970 the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled they have “nothing whatsoever to do with the establishment of religion.”

• Today governments and school boards remain hesitant to post the words in public buildings and classrooms – even though they were legally adopted as the national motto 50 years ago this month.

“I don’t think it’ll ever really be a settled issue,” said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State.

Jacquie Sullivan, founder of the nonprofit group In God We Trust – America, said, “There was a lot of debate and searching before that became the national motto. It stands for everything good that our country is about.”

The founding fathers originally favored the motto E Pluribus Unum (Out of Many, One) – taken from a salad recipe, said Brian Burrell, author of “The Words We Live By: The Creeds, Mottoes, and Pledges That Have Shaped America,” a volume based on his father’s extensive collection.

“When you think of a melting pot, a salad bowl is another analogy,” said Burrell, a mathematics lecturer at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

The In God We Trust motto has its roots in a surge of religiosity during and after the Civil War.

“Times of fear and insecurity tend to give rise to a kind of exaggerated nationalism,” Burrell said. “That’s when the move began to put the phrase on the currency.”

In 1861, Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase began searching for an appropriately devout inscription. Those considered included “Our Country; Our God” and “God, Our Trust.”

Chase suggested In God We Trust – perhaps inspired by the final stanza of “The Star-Spangled Banner”: “And this be our motto: In God is our trust.” The approved four-word version first appeared on the 1864 two-cent coin, according to the U.S. Treasury Department.

The phrase still reflects America’s spirituality, said Randy Sharp of the American Family Association.

Sharp oversees the group’s ongoing poster drive to display the motto in classrooms across the country. More than half a million have been distributed since 2001, he said.

“We wanted to make sure children in public schools were able to recognize their heritage, and our national motto is part of that,” Sharp said.

“If we look back, God has had his hand in our national history, including George Washington’s fight to break free from tyranny,” he said. “We couldn’t have done that without firm reliance on God.”

Lynn, a United Church of Christ minister, reads a different meaning – and contention – in the words.

It’s divisive, he said, because “some Americans believe in and trust many gods, some believe in and trust none, some believe in and trust one.”

Especially with immigration, Lynn noted, comes “an increased diversity of new religious movements. The simplicity that people thought was contained in that phrase turns out to be increasingly complex and controversial.”

The debate isn’t new. Teddy Roosevelt sparked a furor when he wrote in a 1907 letter that it was “eminently unwise to cheapen such a motto by use on coins, just as it would be to cheapen it by use on postage stamps or in advertisements.”

“There was a huge uproar, debates in Congress,” Burrell said. “Roosevelt lost that battle.”

The Cold War prompted legal adoption of In God We Trust as the national motto. Historians see it as a public religious stand against officially atheist communism. President Eisenhower approved the congressional joint resolution on July 30, 1956.

The motto has appeared on paper money since 1957.

The 1970 9th Circuit Court case (Aronow vs. the United States) affirmed that usage was “of patriotic or ceremonial value,” and not religious. The Supreme Court has declined to consider appeals of that and similiar rulings.

In September 2003, a Gallup Poll queried American adults about the use of the phrase on currency; 90 percent approved, 8 percent disapproved, 2 percent had no opinion.

And yet, some governments and school boards remain hesitant to post it. That’s why Jacquie Sullivan got involved.

Sullivan, a city council member in Bakersfield, Calif., founded In God We Trust – America in 2004 to educate officials that it is not illegal to post it, and to prompt them to do so.

“This is different from the Ten Commandments,” she said.

She’s planning a 50th anniversary celebration on July 30 featuring Christian singer Carman and a rally to recognize the 19 cities in California now displaying the motto.

Sullivan also is enlisting volunteers to take the push nationwide.

(OPTIONAL TRIM FOLLOWS)

“Our rights, our liberties, our freedoms don’t come from government; they originally come from God,” is what the phrase means to her, she said.

No doubt that’s ironic to Louis Fisher. He’s a specialist in the law library at the Library of Congress, and has researched the legal history of the phrase.

“If you go back to the founding fathers, many were deists,” Fisher said. “Their belief was there was an original creator, but then you took care of things yourself.”

X X X

RB/LF END SEFTON

(Dru Sefton can be contacted at dru.sefton(at)newhouse.com)

AP-NY-07-13-06 1832EDT


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.