The Constitutional Principle: Separation of Church and State
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In God We Trust:
All Others Pay Cash

Originally published in Preserving the Wall, Vol. 3, No. 3, the newsletter
of the Rochester Chapter of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, this article is copied with permission from the author.

By Ralph C. Reynolds, president of the Rochester Chapter of Americans United for Separation of Church and State

Before the days of credit and debit cards, one used to see signs similar to the one above in diners, service stations, food stores, and many other establishments, obviously playing on the use of the motto "In God We Trust" that is on our coins and paper currency. It may come as a surprise to many younger and even not so young persons that this was not always so, that the regular use of "In God We Trust" on US coins did not begin until 1908, "In God We Trust" was not made an official motto of the United States until 1956, and the motto did not appear on paper money until 1957. The history of the choice of "In God We Trust" as an official motto of the United States and the practice of placing "In God We Trust" on coins and bills is a tale of historical revisionism, perfidy by our elected representatives and appointed officials, and ecclesiastical opportunism whose results have tended to eat away at the foundations of our liberties and threaten the very idea of the separation of church and state.

In contrast to the Declaration of Independence, and quite deliberately, the Constitution of the United States contains not a single reference to a deity or to divine inspiration. This was, of course, due to the genius of the founding fathers who saw in Europe and elsewhere the strife that had been engendered by the adoption of official religions in nearly all Old World countries. Yet we frequently see in letters to the editor and elsewhere the claim that the US was created and remains a Christian nation. I have had several e-mail notes from evangelicals and fundamentalists who have maintained the same thing. When pressed as to where this idea comes from, they point to the words "In God We Trust" on all our money and the phrase "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance to the Flag. Well, how did this come about? How did the clearly unconstitutional words "In God We Trust" and "under God" come to appear on our money and in our Pledge of Allegiance?

In the early years of our country, around 1800, when church affiliation was perhaps 10% (some authorities say up to 17-20%) of the population, the motto on our coins, then the major medium of exchange, was often just "LIBERTY." In 1776, Congress appointed John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson to design a Great Seal for the fledgling country. The motto they adopted for the Great Seal was E Pluribus Unum, meaning, "from many, one" or "one unity composed of many parts." Although the design was rejected, the motto was adopted by the designers of the Great Seal approved by Congress in 1782. The motto was first used on coins of the United States mint in 1795, and both legends, that is, LIBERTY and E Pluribus Unum, were used somewhat regularly on coins throughout the nineteenth century.

By 1860 the proportion of church-related persons in the United States had slowly doubled or tripled to about 40% of the population, and during and following the Civil War, there was a burgeoning of religious fanaticism in America that built on a general feeling fed by the clergy that the Civil War was God's punishment for omitting His name from the Constitution. In 1863, eleven Protestant denominations banded together to petition the Congress to correct the oversight by the founders and "reform" the Constitution to indicate that the United States was created as and remained a Christian nation. Thus, the so-called National Reform Association submitted the following additions to the preamble:

We, the people of the United States, humbly acknowledging almighty God as the source of all authority and power in civil government, the Lord Jesus Christ as the ruler among nations, his revealed will as the supreme law of the land, in order to constitute a Christian government, and in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the inalienable rights and the blessings of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness to ourselves, our posterity, and all the people, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America. [Proposed additions italicized.]

The Christian amendment never gained the approval of the Congress or of any of the states. When introduced again in 1874 it never got out of committee. In its heyday, however, in the early 1860s, the NRA (not the gun people) had as members many prominent men including a Supreme Court Justice, William Strong, and two ex-governors of Pennsylvania, J.W. Geary and James Pollock. The stated and well-known goal of the NRA was the creation of a Christian theocracy in the United States. Although they were singularly unsuccessful in their primary goal of amending the preamble, the organization lasted through the first half of the twentieth century and apparently still had registered lobbyists in the late 1950s.

Our story now takes another tack as President Lincoln had in 1861 fortuitously appointed the religious zealot and NRA member James Pollock as Director of the Mint. In November 1861, a certain Rev. Mark Richard Watkinson, pastor of a Baptist church in Delaware County, Pennsylvania, wrote a letter to Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase pointing out that the lack of "recognition of the Almighty God in some form on our coins" was a serious oversight by those responsible for the nation's coinage. The good pastor recommended that the Goddess of Liberty be replaced by a specified arrangement of 13 stars, the words "perpetual union," the all-seeing eye crowned with a halo, and a flag with the words "God, liberty, law" written within the folds of the bars. "This," said the parson, "would make a beautiful coin to which no possible citizen could object. This would relieve us from the ignominy of heathenism. This would place us openly under the divine protection we have personally claimed...."

Obviously moved by these eloquent words, Secretary Chase wrote a letter to his Director of the Mint, James Pollock:

Dear Sir:  No nation can be strong except in the strength of God, or safe except in his defense. The trust of our people in God should be declared on our national coins. You will cause a device to be prepared without unnecessary delay with a motto expressing...this national recognition.

Pollock leapt at this chance and in 1863 submitted several designs to Chase that incorporated variations of the mottos "Our Trust is in God" and "God and Our Country." Shortly after the designs were submitted in December 1863, Secretary Chase notified Pollock that the mottos were approved but suggested that they should be modified to place "Our God and Our Country" on one coin and "In God We Trust" on another. In 1864 Congress agreed to this proposal by passing a law that contained the words, "...and the shape, mottoes, and devices of said coins shall be fixed by the director of the mint, with the approval of the Secretary of the Treasury." Thus, unable to convert the nation into a theocracy by legal means, the avowed supporter of Christian theocracy (see box below) was given another chance and succeeded in his goal of subverting the Constitution. The nation now officially recognized God as its protector through the agency of the United States mint.

Things were pretty quiet for about 40 years as the government solidified the nation's position as a de facto Protestant theocracy. Church affiliation is reported to have risen to well over 40% of the population in the latter half of the century. Protestants dominated the positions of power in both the government and the private sector.    It has been pointed out by some ecclesiastics that the motto "In God We Trust" does not mention Christ or Christianity, but indeed, includes over 90% of the population that believes, according to recent surveys, in "God," whether they are Christians or not. This appears to be mere dissimulation; the phrase "In God We Trust" has never been used by Jews or Muslims or any other faith that is based on the monotheistic God of the Jews except Christianity. The phrase "In God We Trust" does not appear in the Bible. Although there are many passages in the "Old Testament" that refer to placing one's trust in the Lord, the New Testament contains only two passages that, in the Authorized (King James) version, refer to trusting in God, namely, 1 Timothy 4:10 ("For therefore trust in the living God,...") and 2 Corinthians 1:9 ("...we should not trust in ourselves, but in God...."). Although these passages have been quoted by Bible believers as precedent for the use of "In God We Trust" as a national motto and on our currency and coins, the word "trust" does not appear in these passages in other translations of the Bible such as the Revised Standard Version and the New English Bible. Thus, this contention presupposes, of course, that the King James version is the only acceptable translation of the Bible and that all Americans must accept the Bible as the errant "word of God."

Now the coinage act of 1864 did not specify the wording to be placed on the coins, and this fact opened the door to further mischief as the act provided that the Secretary of the Treasury, acting on the advice of the Director of the Mint, could change the wording at any time. President Theodore Roosevelt, whose term of office started in 1901, was a staunch admirer of the sculptor Saint-Gaudens, and he persuaded Treasury Secretary Shaw to commission Saint-Gaudens to provide new designs for the nations' coinage. Saint-Gaudens, however, disapproved of the use of "In God We Trust" on coins for aesthetic reasons, and it turned out that Theodore Roosevelt also disapproved of the motto "In God We Trust" on coins, but for religious reasons, not aesthetic ones. Roosevelt thought that having the "In God We Trust" motto on common coins that were abused in all sorts of manners was close to sacrilege.

When these views attacking the use of the inscription "In God We Trust" were made public, there was a huge public outcry, and the White House and members of Congress were deluged with protests and petitions from the religious sectors demanding the restoration of "In God We Trust" to the coinage. Quickly caving in to the public outcry, Roosevelt notified the House and Senate leadership that he would not veto a bill specifying that "In God We Trust" be inscribed on all coins if it passed both houses. A bill was indeed passed by the House in March and by the Senate in May of 1908; the bill became Public Law No. 120 when signed by Roosevelt on May 18, 1908. The law said in part, "Be it enacted by the Senate and the House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, that the motto 'In God We Trust,' heretofore inscribed on certain denominations of gold and silver coins of the United States of America, shall hereafter be inscribed on all such gold and silver coins of said denominations as heretofore."

The extension of the use of the "In God We Trust" motto to paper money came about as paper currency more and more assumed the status of the principal medium of exchange in the country. As the country had experienced over 40 years of exposure to the motto on our coins without serious protest, in the late 1940s some religionists thought it was about time that the motto was placed on our paper currency to thank the Lord for preserving us through the terrible war that had just ended [ignoring the fact that the German army had the motto "Gott mit Uns" (God with us) inscribed on their belt buckles]. In 1953, one Matthew R. Rothert of Arkansas, president of the Arkansas Numismatic Society, presented the idea of putting "In God We Trust" on all paper money to a meeting of his group. The favorable reaction by his audience prompted him to send a written proposal for such a change to Treasury Secretary Humphrey, but he also sent copies of the correspondence to Commerce Secretary Weeks and to President Eisenhower. This single letter prompted the Eisenhower administration in June 1955 to recommend to Congress a bill (H.R. 619) that would "[provide] for the inscription of 'In God We Trust' on all United States currency and coins." Introduced into the House, a representative from Florida characterized the object of the bill as, "...in these days when imperialistic and materialistic communism seeks to attack and destroy freedom,..." a way to "...strengthen the foundations of our freedom. At the base of our freedom is our faith in God and the desire of Americans to live by His will and His guidance. As long as this country trusts in God, it will prevail. To serve as a constant reminder of this truth, it is highly desirable that our currency and coins should bear these inspiring words '"In God We Trust.'"   

Does the Motto Pass the
"Lemon Test"?

The three-pronged Lemon test for constitutionality under the First Amendment was delineated in the majority opinion written by Chief Justice Warren Burger in Lemon v. Kurtzman (1971) as "First, the statute must have a secular legislative purpose; second, its principal or primary effect must be one that neither advances nor inhibits religion; finally, the statute must not 'foster an excessive government entanglement with religion.'" This view was affirmed in, for example, Committee for Public Education and Religious Liberty v. Nyquist (413 U.S. 756, 1973), which declared New York parochial school aid unconstitutional. Recently. several court observers have questioned the usefulness of the Lemon test, and although it has not been formally overruled, many recent establishment clause cases have been decided without referring to it. Nevertheless, it is the opinion of many observers that the laws specifying the national motto and providing for the placement of the motto on currency and coins of the United States clearly fail all three parts of the Lemon test.

Introduced amidst the Cold War hysteria of the 1950s, this bill was rapidly approved by the House and shortly thereafter by the Senate with little debate. The words "In God We Trust" have appeared on all United States currency issued after October 1, 1957.

Emboldened by the rapidity with which the Congress embraced the use of the "In God We Trust" motto on paper money, Congressional forces still energized by rampant McCarthyism and anti-Communism thought it the opportune time to make the "In God We Trust" motto the "national motto." Introduced on March 22, 1956, H.R. Res. 396 was quickly approved and signed into law on July 30, 1956 (36 U.S.C. Section 186), thus completing the campaign of the religionists to instill the Christian nation idea into the consciousness of all Americans through the agency of a few individuals who found a way to circumvent the normal safeguards of liberty enshrined in the United States Constitution.

Challenges to the "In God We Trust" Motto

"Americans ask piety in presidents, not displays of religious preference."
New York Times editorial,
Jan. 31, 1984

   The use of "In God We Trust" as the motto on our paper currency and coins has been subject to legal challenges in the courts. In the first such case, Aronow v. United States (1970), the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled that, "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 a patriotic or ceremonial character and bears no true resemblance to a governmental sponsorship of a religious exercise.".

A second challenge, Madalyn Murray O'Hair v. W. Michael Blumenthal, Secretary of the Treasury, et al. (1978) was heard in the United States District Court, Western District of Texas. The court opined that, based on the above ruling by the Ninth Circuit court, "From this it is easy to deduce that the Court concluded that the primary purpose of the slogan was secular; it served a secular ceremonial purpose in the obviously secular function of providing a medium of exchange." Several other court cases were also unsuccessful despite the plaintiffs assertion that the motto was clearly of a religious nature in making a statement about God and encouraging belief in that God

The Pledge of Allegiance

I pledge allegiance to my Flag and (to) the Republic for which it stands: one Nation, indivisible, with Liberty and Justice for all.

This pledge was issued by the executive committee at the dedication of the World's Fair Grounds in Chicago, IL, on October 21, 1892; subsequent research suggested that it was written by the Committee chairman, Francis Bellamy (United States Flag Association, 1939). Originally consisting of 22 words, the word "to" was added immediately after the first celebration. The pledge was first revised at the First National Flag Conference in 1923 when the words "the Flag of the United States" were substituted for "my Flag," and the words "of America" were added to that phrase at the Second National Flag Conference in 1924. (We might note in passing that the United States is the only country in the world that pledges allegiance to a flag!) The pledge of allegiance did not, however, become the official Pledge of Allegiance to the Flag until Public Law 79-287 was signed on December 28, 1941 by President F.D. Roosevelt to prepare it for service in the war effort.

Nevertheless, the Pledge of Allegiance remained thoroughly secular, as demanded by the Constitution, for 62 years. Then, in the early 1950s, as with the national motto, a group of religionists used the concerns of the cold war against "Godless" communism to remedy the lack of foresight of the writer of the pledge in omitting any reference to Christianity or, the next best thing, to God. But this time it was a Roman Catholic organization that got the ball rolling when the Knights of Columbus began a campaign that would alter the fundamental relationship of our national government to the governed that had existed for 178 years.

The Knights of Columbus had apparently in 1951 instituted their own version of the Pledge of Allegiance for use at their meetings that contained the words "under God." Seeing that the time was right, they enlisted the cooperation of the American Legion in lobbying the Executive branch and the Congress to add "under God" to the pledge. Ignoring the Constitution and caving in to the expediency of the moment, President Eisenhower expressed support for the measure, and it was passed on Flag Day, June 14, 1954.

This was a major expansion of the religious province of government officials; what had previously been expressions of personal piety, as in Lincoln's Gettysburg Address and the Emancipation Proclamation, were now transmogrified into the first religious test instituted for citizens of this nation. Clearly the addition of "under God" to the Pledge of Allegiance is an "establishment of religion" and thus is clearly unconstitutional.


This brief history of the paths by which the national motto, "In God We Trust", was born and caused to be placed on our paper currency and coins and the words "under God" were added to the Pledge of Allegiance demonstrates that these actions were never approved by the mass of the American people but were the result of opportunistic actions of, by and large, two religious fanatics acting 90 years apart. But James Pollock and Matthew Rothert could only accomplish these acts with the inadvertent help of Theodore Roosevelt and the acquiescence of many government officials and elected representatives who forgot that they were charged with upholding and defending the Constitution of the United States. What can be done about this situation? For the present, perhaps, nothing, but we can still correct the false ideas that many persons hold that "In God We Trust" has "been on our money since year 1" and that the presence of the motto indicates that we are a Christian nation and thus the mass of us should accommodate Christians when they seek to override the Constitution. Then perhaps someday we can restore the proper motto for our diverse nation, E Pluribus Unum, to its rightful place as emblematic of American democracy.

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