“In God We Trust”…But Which God?

There is an interesting article in the Huffington Post about a legislation the House is attempting to pass through:

The agenda for the House of Representatives contains a bill, recently reported out of the Judiciary Committee, that asks our elected officials to reaffirm “In God We Trust” as our national motto. News reports indicate the bill’s supporters appear particularly keen on having public school classrooms display the motto, so that children can spend their days gazing upon it.

Granted, “In God We Trust” has a long public record, dating back to 1864, when the government first started engraving it on our coinage. It became the national motto when Congress voted it as such in 1956. Think those two years might have shared anything? In each case, the nation perceived itself in a life-or-death struggle — the Civil War in the first instance, the Cold War in the second. And given that the principal enemy the second time around was the Soviet Union, the idea of adopting “In God We Trust” as our national motto must have seemed a pretty clear way to distinguish Americans from the godless Commies in Moscow.

The God whose name shows up on our currency and is at the heart of the proposed legislation is, I’m inclined to believe, a national deity, considered by Americans as our special guardian. In other words, this is not the biblical God, but a deity invoked by politicians who close their speeches with a ritual plea, “God Bless America.” I hear that as a prayer — and sometimes it sounds foreshortened, with the longer version being, “America’s God, Bless America.”

Forty-four years ago, the eminent sociologist Robert Bellah wrote a wonderfully perceptive and influential essay about Americans’ “civil religion,” which he identified as a set of beliefs and rituals that draw some inspiration from Christianity and Judaism, but which exist separately from them. This faith includes a God invoked on public ceremonial occasions, has its own roster of martyrs (heroes fallen, defending the nation) and celebrates its own holidays (especially, Memorial Day).

But there’s another way to look at “In God We Trust,” and it’s one that ought to be of real concern to religionists.

Twice in the last three decades, the Supreme Court has specifically identified that phrase as being void of substantive sacred meaning. The justices describe the phrase as “ceremonial deism.” The late Justice William Brennan wrote that the motto falls into a category of public expression that has “lost through rote repetition any significant religious content.”

If you are a believing monotheist, is that how you want God’s name treated?

via Gustav Niebuhr: Congress Considers “In God We Trust”… But Who Is This God?.

Read on.  It seems odd that Congress is attempting to do this now.   After all, why didn’t our founding fathers incorporate this language into the constitution, into the Bill of Rights?  Why wasn’t this made our official motto in 1782, rather than now in 2011?

Legislators who wish to change the motto of this nation seem more like a board of directors who, despite the urging of the founder of the company, think their selfish means are more important than those they step on–even if it goes against everything the founder had intended for his dream.  That dream here, folks, is the American dream so laid out in our proper (original) motto:

E pluribus unum: Out of many, one.

This new legislation turns that on its head.  It dissolves all individuality, all uniqueness, and says, in effect, that everyone in this country falls under “God” and this, rather than education, rather than family, rather than science, is where we place our trust.  I for one think that is far too shortsighted and no nation which claims to be just and free should incorporate such language, with such implications, into any manner of government and national legislation.

Gustav Niebuhr spells out the problem effectually in his short article:

Of warring Northerners and Southerners, Lincoln said, “Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other … The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes.”

The last six words are a powerful theological statement. Congressional supporters of the motto might do well to meditate on them before pushing their bill any further.

Nobody is saying ‘don’t believe in God’ (I’m certainly not).  And nobody is saying that you shouldn’t put some of your trust in that God, if that is what you believe (I believe in god, but I don’t think that it should be something our Government should be telling its citizens to do).  But don’t tell me I have to, or that I do, or that anyone else should or does.  Then you trample on my rights in my country.  I am one of many.  Let’s keep it that way, lest you–those supporters of this bill–become akin to me, so slanderously stratified into the lot with everyone else, against my own will, oppressed in fact to put my trust in something that I can not even define.


2 Responses

  1. This is a very important concept, Tom. I’m glad you’re writing about it. I hate that moderate theists tend not to listen to me because I’m an atheist, but strict separation of church and state is the best thing for THEISTS in America.

    If any kind of “official” American god is inserted into American Government, it will take away religious freedom from everyone else who believes in a god, even if only a slightly different one. Do we really want to go back to the sectarian days of Catholics vs. Protestants, only this time with Evangelicals vs. Moderates?

    Are all the Christian denominations who are NOT anti-choice willing to throw their convictions aside and support the evangelical version of god who would rather kill an abortion doctor than grant a woman the right to choose?

    Is Rob Bell willing to be a National Heretic?

    It’s scary stuff, and Christians of all but the most evangelical stripes ought to be very scared of this legislation. More scared than me, in fact.

  2. […] In God We Trust: But Which God? […]

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