by Jeff Olson
Official references to God are just one area of religious freedom which has come under attack over the past fifty years in our nation. One of the most recent of these involves our national motto, “In God We Trust.” A new law passed in the state of South Dakota requires that the state’s 149 school districts paint, stencil or prominently feature the national motto “In God We Trust” in the coming school year. The Freedom from Religion Foundation, which advocates for the separation between church and state, has urged its South Dakota members to contact lawmakers to express opposition to the law. Regardless of what side of this issue you come down on, there is no denying how reflective our national motto is of America’s foundation and rich heritage of religious freedom.
“In God We Trust” is a phrase Americans are familiar with, in great part because of its history on our currency. On July 11, 1955, legislation (H.R. 619) was signed by President Dwight Eisenhower requiring that the inscription “In God We Trust” appear on all paper and coin currency of the United States. The resolution was introduced by Representative Charles E. Bennett of Florida. As Bennett proclaimed on the House Floor, “Nothing can be more certain than that our country was founded in a spiritual atmosphere and with a firm trust in God. While the sentiment of trust in God is universal and timeless, these particular four words ‘In God We Trust’ are indigenous to our country. In these days when imperialistic and materialistic communism seeks to attack and destroy freedom, we should continually look for ways to strengthen the foundations of our freedom.” Bennett believed that adding “In God We Trust” to currency would serve as a constant reminder that the nation’s political and economic fortunes were tied to its spiritual faith. IN GOD WE TRUST was first used on paper money in 1957, when it appeared on the one-dollar silver certificate. The first paper currency bearing the motto entered circulation on October 1, 1957.
Just three years earlier, in 1954 at a Flag Day speech, President Eisenhower expressed his thoughts about the place of religion in public life when he discussed why he had wanted to include “under God” in the pledge of allegiance: “In this way we are reaffirming the transcendence of religious faith in America’s heritage and future; in this way we shall constantly strengthen those spiritual weapons which forever will be our country’s most powerful resource in peace and war.”
These events subsequently lead to the passing of P.L. 84-140 officially declaring IN GOD WE TRUST to be the nation’s official motto. This week marks the sixty-third anniversary of President Eisenhower’s signature, approving the law on July 30, 1956.
The phrase “In God We Trust” has actually been around much longer than this. As an indication of increased religious sentiment during the Civil War, Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase received many appeals from devout persons throughout the country urging that the United States recognize the Deity on United States coins. From Treasury Department records it appears that the first suggestion that God be recognized on U.S. coinage came from a letter dated November 13, 1861. It was written to Secretary Chase by Rev. M. R. Watkinson, Minister of the Gospel from Ridleyville, Pennsylvania.
As a result, in a letter dated November 20, 1861, Secretary Chase instructed James Pollock, Director of the Mint at Philadelphia, to prepare a motto: “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 in the fewest and tersest words possible this national recognition.” Nearly one hundred sixty years later, in June of this year, the Supreme Court rejected a case seeking to remove the phrase from coins and paper currency. I’m sure this won’t be the last attempt.
In early December 1863, the Director of the Mint submitted designs for new one-cent coin, two-cent coin, and three-cent coin to Secretary Chase for approval. On April 22, 1864, Congress passed legislation which changed the composition of the one-cent coin and authorized the minting of the two-cent coin. IN GOD WE TRUST first appeared on the 1864 two-cent coin.
While it is understood that “In God We Trust” has been largely a symbolic phrase, it nevertheless originated from a spiritual and moral foundation which is crumbling and a heritage which our nation is fast loosing site of. Until “In God We Trust” is resurrected from just the symbolic to the personal and institutional and is restored from a legacy of yesterday to the guiding principle of tomorrow, our nation will continue its downward spiral deeper into moral relativism and internal decay.