The crest of Cold War and Anti-Communist hysteria may have passed by July 30, 1956, but there was still plenty of residual energy. President Dwight D. Eisenhower, perhaps somewhat reluctantly, signed a bill that designated the words “In God We Trust” as the official Motto of the United States.
The year before Congress had acted to require that the phrase be put on all coins and bills.
Of course the U.S. had a de facto motto which had long been included on coins and currency—E Pluribus Unim, usually translated “out of many, one.” That phrase was approved in 1792 for the Great Seal of the United States. It did not satisfy fervid religionists.
Indeed the Great Seal itself, which was filled with Masonic and Deist symbolism without a hint Christian piety, had been a bone of contention since the first struggles over the proper role of religion in the Republic. The largely Deistic founders had purposefully omitted any referenced to God in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights was silent on the subject except to prohibit Congress from the “establishment” of any religion or interfering with the religious observances of its citizens. Practical men with a knowledge of history, they were concerned lest a favored religion or a defined heresy create civil discord and perhaps civil war.
Washington and Jefferson occasionally invoked a vague Deity, most often referred to Providence, Nature’s God, or sometimes the God of Creation, all common Deist constructions for an original moving force of the Universe. They avoided terms like the Lord God which invoked the patriarchal deity of the Old Testament and never invoked Jesus Christ.
John Adams, a true product of the Puritan tradition as it evolved eventually into Unitarianism, firmly believed that organized religion was necessary to constrain the “passions” of an innately sinful humanity. Moreover he was politically indebted to the support of the Black Legion—the clergy of the New England Standing Order—against “atheistic” Jeffersonian Republicanism. Yet even he resisted considerable pressure to inject explicitly Christian prayer, practice, and symbolism into official use.
A complex battle between the evolving movement of Evangelical Protestantism and republican secularism see-sawed back and forth for the first decades of the nation’s existence. Some compromises were unofficially reached, but on the whole the government remained resolutely secular, nor were Presidents even expected to make personal religious declarations.
During the crisis of the Civil War, however, President Abraham Lincoln needed the fervent support of the Protestant clergy, particularly its avidly abolitionist voices. Not a personally “saved” Christian, and deeply influenced by the Founder’s secular Deism, Lincoln non-the-less was a student of the Bible as literature and was adept at echoing its cadences and invoking powerful Biblical language in his speeches. But he was always being pressed by the clergy to make more overt religious statements.
It was in this context that Lincoln called for national days of fasting and Thanksgiving. He also undoubtedly approved when his Treasury Secretary, the devout Salmon P. Chase, first directed the Mint to inscribe the words “In God We Trust” on a two cent coin issued in 1864. The approbation of the preachers far outweighed the slight protests of Freethinkers and over the next decades most—but not all—coins added the phrase as they were re-designed.
Government issued Greenback currency, however, contained no religious declaration, just a practical promise to pay the bearer in specie upon demand.
And so the situation stayed until the dawn of the Cold War. Then Catholics, who had long been reluctant to join with Protestants in any religious demands on the government because they assumed, quite rightly, that the Protestants would insist on narrow language that excluded Catholic worship, became particularly alarmed at the rise of “atheistic Communism” and the suppression of Catholic worship in the new Soviet Satellites in Eastern Europe. Leading anti-Communist Prelates launched a campaign to require “In God We Trust” on currency as well as all coins and to make it an official motto.
Federal authorities, who were eager to use those same Bishops to influence the heavily Catholic industrial working class against “Communist infiltration” of the labor movement, were more than glad to add religious arrows to their crusade against Reds.
When leading Protestant Evangelicals fell into line, the movement in Congress became irresistible even to those who were squeamish. What Congressman wanted to be painted as voting against God?
Controversy over the motto and its use on currency and coins has never gone away. Church and state separation advocates, civil libertarians, and increasingly vocal atheist activists have repeatedly challenged the motto and its use on coins and currency in court. And just as routinely have lost.
In the case of Aronow v. United States in 1970, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled, “It is quite obvious that the national motto and the slogan on coinage and currency ‘In God We Trust’ has nothing whatsoever to do with the establishment of religion. Its use is of patriotic or ceremonial character and bears no true resemblance to a governmental sponsorship of a religious exercise.” The Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal. In another case The Supreme Court upheld the motto in because it has “lost through rote repetition any significant religious content.”
With public support of continued use of the motto on coins and currency standing at 90% in a 2003 Gallup Poll it does not appear that the phrase will be going away any time soon.