Guest Column (4/23/09)

Religion and patriotism: Do they really click?

April 23, 2009

By Edwin Cooney

In recent years, out of concern for our national security, millions of Americans have come to equate their religious faith with their patriotism via the motto “In God We Trust.” The question is, to what effect?

America’s original motto, adopted in 1782 by the Congress under the Articles of Confederation, was “E Pluribus Unum:” Out of many, one. That motto symbolized the formation of a new nation out of 13 colonies. It not only reflected the newly minted nation’s pride, its effect was tangible. One could see it on the map as the nation rapidly expanded. The nation grew steadily until 1861. Then the Civil War commenced and 11 of America’s 34 states (Kansas became the 34th state early in 1861 as the Southern states were seceding) decided to break away from the Union. So much for the tangible!

It was during the Civil War that the Northern clergy pressed the Lincoln administration to have a statement printed on future coinage invoking our religious faith. Rev. M. R. Watkinson of Ridley Township, Pa. gave two reasons for this. The first was because of the moral struggle the Union was waging against slavery. (Note that the South insisted that God was on its side based in part on scriptural admonitions that slavery was legitimate and that slaves should love and obey their masters: Colossians 4:1 and 3:22.) The second purpose was to distinguish America from “heathen” nations.

Thus, in November 1863, Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase authorized James Pollock, director of the Philadelphia Mint, to prepare a design for the two and three cent pieces to read “E Pluribus Unum” and “In God We Trust.”

This new motto periodically appeared on our coinage between 1865 and 1957. However, beginning Oct. 1, 1957, it was placed by law on all coins and bills issued by the U.S. Treasury. This was the result of a joint resolution of the Congress passed the previous year and signed into law by President Eisenhower on Monday, July 30, 1956. Ike, after all, was a candidate for re-election that year.

Most Americans, when threatened by illness, war or fear, understandably look to God for strength and sustenance. Still, there are millions of American patriots among us who are either atheists or agnostics for whom the phrase “In God We Trust” has little meaning, but who certainly love their country.

Ambiguity over “In God We Trust” is by no means confined to nonbelievers. Theodore Roosevelt, our 26th president, wrote the following to Congress in 1907: “My own feeling in the matter is due to my very firm conviction that to put such a motto on coins, or to use it in any kindred manner, not only does no good but does positive harm, and is in effect irreverence, which comes dangerously close to sacrilege … it seems to me eminently unwise to cheapen such a motto by use on coins, just as it would be to cheapen it by use on postage stamps, or in advertisements.”

TR was a member of the Dutch Reformed Church, a sect that was apparently very strict as to how and where God’s name should be used or displayed. Although Roosevelt didn’t object to the motto’s use on statues, the walls of courthouses or military establishments, its use on money was another matter.

As for me, I object to it on still another ground. God is omnipotent, if we’re to follow scripture. It isn’t, as I understand it, up to us to trust or not trust God. Therefore, it seems to me, to set “standards” for God is quite sacrilegious. Furthermore, I’ve never seen anything in scripture that specifies that God loves Americans or favors American causes over those of the rest of His creation. In so far as I am aware, mortals may go to Heaven (and perhaps a generous God at Christ’s request will let me in, too), but America as a nation will likely be quite irrelevant in eternity!

What President Abraham Lincoln had to say on the subject of God and nations has been quoted many times. Mr. Lincoln didn’t worry as much about whether God was on our side as much as he worried whether we were on God’s side.

Our individual morality may ultimately be at issue when we reach the Pearly Gates, but meanwhile America’s survival is up to us. No one said it better than another one of our four martyred presidents, John F. Kennedy, at the close of his inaugural address: “… With a good conscience our only sure reward, with history the final judge of our deeds, let us go forth to lead the land that we love, asking His blessing and His help, but knowing that here on earth God’s work must truly be our own.”

Edwin Cooney is a national political and historical columnist.