Friday, November 18, 2011

Whose motto is “In God We Trust”? — History & mythology

One of the more interesting aspects of American exceptionalism has involved the complex and distinctive forms that the interplay between religion and republicanism has taken in the history and politics of the United States. (For some previous discussions, see Religion & republicanism in American political culture; George Washington's Letter to the Jews of Newport, Rhode Island; A Muslim in Congress & the Spirit of the US Constitution; and "Rum, Romanism, and Rebellion" - Some historical perspective on pastors and Presidential candidates.)

A usefully informative piece by the historian Thomas A. Foster, cross-posted at Dissent and at the History News Network, nicely captures one strand in that history. Read the whole thing, but here are some highlights:
Last week [JW: this was posted on November 10, 2011] Congress voted to reaffirm that the national motto of the United States is “In God We Trust.” Representative Randy Forbes (R-VA) introduced the measure and argued that we would be following “our predecessors” by declaring a national trust in God. Last year he and the Congressional Prayer Caucus had criticized President Obama when he “falsely proclaimed” in a speech in Jakarta that “E Pluribus Unum” is the national motto.

The conservatives who criticized Obama and who claim the mantle of the founding fathers are mistaken on both counts. Although “In God We Trust” is the official motto, “E Pluribus Unum” has long been acknowledged as a de facto national motto. After all, it is on the Great Seal of the United States, which was adopted in 1782. Moreover, in the 1770s and ’80s Congress opposed a theistic motto for the nation, and many of the founders worked hard to prevent one from being established.

In July 1776, almost immediately after signing the Declaration of Independence, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson were tasked with designing a seal and motto for the new nation. [....] It would take years and several more committees before Congress would approve the final design, still in use today, of an American bald eagle clutching thirteen arrows in one talon and an olive branch in the other.

Only the motto “E Pluribus Unum” (“from many, one”) survived the committee in which Adams, Jefferson, and Franklin had served. All had agreed on that motto from the beginning [JW: while also considering various alternatives, which were dropped along the way].

The current motto, “In God We Trust,” was developed by a later generation. It was used on some coinage at the height of religious fervor during the upheaval of the Civil War. It was made the official national motto in 1956, at the height of the Cold War, to signal opposition to the feared secularizing ideology of communism. [JW: The phrase "under God" was inserted into the Pledge of Allegiance around the same time.]

In other words, “In God We Trust” is a legacy of founders, but not the founders of the nation. As the official national motto, it is a legacy of the founders of modern American conservatism—a legacy reaffirmed by the current Congress.
I will opt for the aspirational "E Pluribus Unum", of course.

—Jeff Weintraub