In God we trust? A modest proposal

By Morf Morford, Tacoma Daily Index

Almost ten years ago, the Pierce County Council had a passionate, sometimes difficult conversation about posting a plaque with the words “In God we trust” over the council dais. It must have been a slow day with no other pressing issues.

The phrase “In God we trust” is widely posted and is on most, if not all of US coins and currency. The statement is not in the Bible.

In God we trust, all others must pay cash

Many years ago, the statement above was prominently placed, usually above or behind the cash register at many business and restaurants. I never understood if it was a policy statement, a joke or something else.

To see “In God we trust” in virtually every business and on every coin and dollar bill, one might wonder what the purpose of this statement might be.

In ceremonial deism we trust

It was in 1956 that “In God We Trust” became the official motto of the United States.

Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor has called this posting of the phrase “ceremonial deism” that through constant repetition has largely lost any religious content. No longer religious in nature, the phrase has become, rather, a historical artifact, a public recognition of the role of religion in national every day life.

Almost all of us who use cash, see, or at least have the opportunity to see, this phrase. But what does it tell us? What should we do in response to seeing “In God We Trust” in public places or on our money?

Maybe I’m too cynical, but it’s difficult for me to imagine anyone being inspired or transformed or finding any sort of comfort in response to this ever present statement.

On my way to work recently, I saw a very small bumper sticker on a car; “Your bumper sticker really made me change my mind.” To put it mildly, bumper stickers rarely change anyone’s mind. Nor do plaques or public pronouncements.

Religion, or trust in a divine presence, should inspire, transform and be a source of solace and encouragement. I can’t even begin to imagine finding any of that in publicly placed postings of any statement or cliche.

Church & state?

There have been many Constitutional based challenges to such public postings.

From public displays of the Ten Commandments to excerpts from scriptures, and public prayers, we can’t seem to decide how personal/private/public expressions of faith should be.

The argument is usually based on the premise that church and state should be kept separate.

Those who defend its use and prominence have what seems to be a very odd defense of it. They insist that it should stay precisely because it holds little to no religious meaning.

Here’s how one judge summed it up in 2006; the motto “has no theological or ritualistic impact” and is of a purely secular, “patriotic” and “ceremonial character.” The words “In God We Trust,” he said, constitute in effect “a secular national slogan.”

So why do we keep it on courtroom or council meeting rooms and on our coins? The short answer is very simple; it’s there because it’s always been there. At least since 1956.

As Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor put it, we keep it because if we didn’t, we would risk losing a key element of our national identity because “eradicating such references would sever ties to history that sustains this Nation.”

In short, a phrase devoid of meaning somehow defines us.

Public sentiments are just as divided. The Pew Research Center surveys in recent years have shown that far more Americans support than oppose the separation of church and state, although, as you might guess, there are divisions on these questions based on political identity and religious affiliation. To see more on the details of the church and state controversy, I recommend this site.

Government of the people, by the people, and for the people, shall not perish from the Earth -Abraham Lincoln, Gettysburg Address

Most Americans, and even many around the world who hold representative democracy as an ideal, firmly believe that “We the people” should pursue our own identity and destiny. Almost 30% of American believe, on the other hand, that scriptures should equal or even trump the will of the people. And, just in case you (or apparently 30% of Americans) forgot, we live in a democracy – not a theocracy.

For better or worse, right or wrong, in our system the majority rules. Invoking a deity to buttress our opinions, personal agendas or beliefs in a public, especially political setting is, at best, an odd use of time and resources of officials whose duty and pledge is to serve and represent us all.

Taking the name of the Lord in vain

The historic monotheistic religions, for millennia, have held (literally as one of the Ten Commandments) that the name of God is sacred – too sacred to be spoken or portrayed in writing (many Jewish books and journals use the letters G-D to describe the eternal deity). Islam goes even further – no human or living being should be portrayed in art or design. There is, they believe, only one Creator.

Words and images, in those traditions, are inherently sacred.

In Christianity, on the other hand, the name of God does not appear to be sacred.

We see and hear the word “God” almost everywhere, from political speeches to teen slang (like OMG). For those of us who still use cash, the name of God sloshes around in our pockets and purses, is handled and passed along without much thought or consideration – let alone reflection or prayer. Or inspiration.

The name of God, I would argue, in our daily acts of commerce, could not be more trivialized.

Serving two masters

The Christian scriptures are very clear; no one can serve two masters (Matthew 6:24). We have the choice of serving God or Mammon (money).

We Americans, as usual, take it as a given, that we can, and should, do it all.

We deliberately blur the line between commerce and worship, the name of God and the dollar sign.

And in America, as a result, little, if anything, is in fact, sacred.

The name of God, if anything, at least according to the monotheistic, Abrahamic traditions, is at minimum, set apart and aspirational.

Putting the name of God on a coin, postage stamp or plaque, is, in most historic traditions, disrespectful if not blasphemous.

Modest proposal

In place of a statement that holds essentially no meaning and has little if any impact or measurable intent, how about an actual scriptural reference that is, in fact measurable and definable, and perhaps a reminder of what, in a sane, moral world would be a call to civil servants to live up to their duty and public expectations.

How about this one? “There should be no poor among you” (Deuteronomy 15:4)