- What is Atheism
- Law & Politics
- Press Information
- Christians Take Over Interfaith Army Chapel in Combat Zone
- Press Kit
- 9/11: 'Never Forget' Must Include All Victims
- Atheists Advocate Separation of Church and State at DNC
- Congressman Pete Stark to Speak at 2013 National Convention
- American Atheists Announces 50th Anniversary Logo Design Contest
- American Atheists Announces Harassment Policy for Conventions and Conferences
- American Atheists Jubilant Over Latest Religion Report
- American Atheists Removes Religious Billboards from Charlotte
- Former Pastor Now American Atheists Public Relations Director
- Former Pastor Teresa MacBain New Public Relations Director
- ITALIAN JUDGE LUIGI TOSTI ACQUITTED!
- American Atheists to Protest Bradford County, FL Decalogue on May 19
Supporting Civil Rights for Atheists and the Separation of Church and State
God on OUR Money
God on OUR Money
"IN GOD WE TRUST" -- STAMPING OUT RELIGION ON NATIONAL CURRENCY
Is it a futile form of protest? A symptom of frustration? Some Atheists and separationists are crossing out the national motto on paper money. Whatever your opinion, the history of how "In God We Trust" ended up on currency shows that the motto is religious, not secular, in its origin and function today.
Web Posted: March 15, 1999
cross the country, there is a movement afoot.
It isn't using picket signs, or a flood of letters to congress, or even a lawsuit -- that's already been tried. Instead, some Atheists and separationists are taking pen in hand, and obliterating the "In God We Trust" motto from the national currency. Others are using rubber stamps, or inserting their own messages like "In Reason We Trust," or "Keep Church and State Separate." Mention religious slogans in an internet newsgroup or at a meeting and eyebrows are suddenly raised. Opinions are expressed. And there's a tame call to action, even if does only use the nearest ball-point or magic marker.
Indeed, religious graffiti on currency is one of the issues which sooner or later all of us will sound off about. It's also one of the periodic topics that ends up being vented, dissected and discussed on news groups and mailing lists. Simply put, most Atheists don't like the "In God We Trust" slogan staring at us every time we pull out our wallets or purses. It has to go. But how?
One of the first legal actions to challenge religious sloganeering of this type was made in 1978 by American Atheists founder Madalyn Murray O'Hair. In the case of MADALYN MURRAY O'HAIR et al. v. W. MICHAEL BLUMENTHAL, SECRETARY OF THE TREASURY, et al. (462 F. Supp. 19 -- W.D. Tex 1978), the court opined: "Its use is of a patriotic or ceremonial character and bears no true resemblance to a governmental sponsorship of religious exercise." The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reached a similar conclusion in the 1970 case ARONOW v. UNITED STATES. Subsequent cases also fell short, even though they argued that the motto clearly encouraged religion and made a statement about god and theology. On September 14, 1988, then-President of American Atheists Jon Murray addressed the Subcommittee on Consumer Affairs and Coinage concerning proposals to redesign the nation's currency. At that time, Murray expressed concern about including "In God We Trust" on the national currency, suggesting instead a return to the secular "E Pluribus Unum" ("One from many") that was used earlier in the nation's history.
Where did "In God We Trust" originate? Many mistakenly believe that it has been the national motto since revolutionary days; but the phraseology is strictly religious in origin.
The national motto adopted by the Founders was inscribed next to the Great Seal of the United States, a decoration devised under the supervision of Franklin, Adams and Jefferson. It was Jefferson who suggested "E Pluribus Unum," and that slogan was adopted in 1782, five years before the Constitutional convention of 1787.
It wasn't until nearly a century later, though, that "In God We Trust" was seriously proposed as a motto. Writing in her book "Freedom Under Siege," (J.P.Tarcher, Los Angeles, 1974), Madalyn O'Hair delineated the historical background for readers:
"In 1861, the Reverend M.R. Watkinson persuaded the secretary of the Treasury to try to introduce 'In God We Trust' as a motto on the coins of the land, arguing on the theological premise that in a Judeo-Christian nation, 'There is but one God.' Congress, then beginning to be responsive to the religious community and the votes that it was presumed to control, passed the Coinage Act of April 22, 1864, which designated that 'In God We Trust' be put on coins 'when and where sufficient space in the balance of the design' would permit it."
Rev. Watkinson's missive was directed to Secretary of the Treasury Samuel P. Chase. It read:
"Dear Sir: You are about to submit your annual report to the Congress respecting the affairs of the national finances.
One fact touching our currency has hitherto been seriously overlooked. I mean the recognition of the Almighty God in some form on our coins.
You are probably a Christian. What if our Republic were not shattered beyond reconstruction? Would not the antiquaries of succeeding centuries rightly reason from our past that we were a heathen nation? What I propose is that instead of the goddess of liberty we shall next inside the 13 stars a ring inscribed with the words PERPETUAL UNION; within the allseeing eye, crowned with a halo; beneath this eye the American flag bearing in its field stars equal to the number of the States united; in the folds of the bars the words GOD, LIBERTY, LAW..."
Seven days after the transmittal of Watkinson's letter, Secretary Chase, on November 20, 1861, wrote to James Pollock, Director of the Mint at Philadelphia. He instructed Pollock to prepare a motto, declaring "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..." A design was submitted in December, 1863 proposing OUR GOD AND OUR COUNTRY, or the alternative of GOD, OUR TRUST. On December 9, 1863, Chase formally approved a third slogan in a letter to the Mint Director.
"I approve your mottoes (sic), only suggesting that on that with the Washington obverse the motto should begin with the word OUR, so as to read OUR GOD AND OUR COUNTRY. And on that with the shield, it should be changed so as to read: IN GOD WE TRUST."
"In God We Trust" thus appeared on the short-lived 1864 two-cent coin. It has been used continuously on the one-cent coin since 1909, and on dimes since 1916. Since July 1, 1908,"In God We Trust" has also been stamped on gold coins, silver dollars, quarters and half-dollar coins
Watkinson's effort to religionize the coinage was part of a larger campaign waged by a coalition of eleven Protestant denominations under the umbrella of the National Reform Association. Disenchanted with the secularism of documents such as the Constitution, the NRA sought to amend that instrument to "indicate that this is a Christian nation." Petitions were raised and formally presented to Congress. They proposed a new preamble to the Constitution which read:
"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 the nations, His revealed will as the supreme law of the land, in order to constitute a Christian government..."
Fortunately, the petition failed despite the membership of powerful and wealthy men in the National Reform Association. They included Supreme Court Justice William Strong, a handful of governors and prominent businessmen.
The next step in the process of religionizing the national currency had to wait nearly a century, when on July 11.1955, President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed Public Law 140 making it mandatory that all coinage and paper currency display the motto "In God We Trust." The following year, Public Law 851 was enacted and signed, which officially replaced the national motto "E Pluribus Unum" with "In God We Trust" All of this occurred at the height of cold war tension, when political divisions between the Soviet and western block was simplistically portrayed as a confrontation between Judeo-Christian civilization and the "godless" menace of communism. Indeed, the new national motto was only part of a broader effort to effectively religionize civic ritual and symbols. On June 14, 1954, Congress unanimously ordered the inclusion of the words "Under God" into the nation's Pledge of Allegiance. By this time, other laws mandating public religiosity had also been enacted, including a statute for all federal justices and judges to swear an oath concluding with "So help me God."
All paper currency issued after October 1, 1957 included the IN GOD WE TRUST national motto.
OTHER RELIGIOUS ORIGINS
The phrase "In God We Trust" does not appear in the Bible. Nevertheless Biblical passages such as 1 Timothy: 4-10 ("Trust in the living God, who is the Savior of all men...") and 2 Corinthians 1:9 ("But we had the sentence of death in ourselves, that we should not trust in ourselves, but in God which raiseth the dead...") are cited as scriptural inspiration. And just as the pleas of Rev. Watkinson and the National Reform Association had led to the inclusion of "In God We Trust" on coinage, similar religious sentiments were used to justify the mottos addition to the nation's paper currency. Evidence of this comes from an examination of the Congressional Record. On June 7, 1955 for instance, Congressman Bennett of Florida rose in support of H.R..619, a bill "Providing for the inscription of 'In God We Trust' on all United States Currency and Coins." Bennett declared:
"I sincerely hope that the Senate will give its prompt approval to this proposal. In these days when imperialistic and materialistic communism seeks to attack and destroy freedom, we should continuously look for ways 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 trust 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.'"
CHALLENGING THE MOTTO: O'HAIR v. BLUEMENTHAL
The 1978 MADALYN MURRAY O'HAIR v. W. MICHAEL BLUMENTHAL case was decided at the U.S Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit. There, the court invoked the notion of "secular purpose," suggesting that like prayer at government meetings or other displays of religiosity in government, the motto was "really" no religious. The court declared with regard to the motto "In God We Trust," that "Its use is of a patriotic or ceremonial character and bears no true resemblance to a governmental sponsorship of a religious exercise. " The Ninth Circuit had reached a similar conclusion in the ARONOW v. UNITED STATES case in 1970.
DEFACING FEDERAL CURRENCY?
So, what about those folks who are launching a civil protest by crossing out the "In God We Trust" motto, or stamping an alternative slogan on the currency. What about frustrated separationists who instead write "Atheist Money" or something similar in the thin margins of every dollar bill? Are they breaking the law? Reproduction or alteration of currency with an intent to defraud does violate federal statutes; but using the greenback as a bulletin board for social protest does not. Article 331, Title 18 of the U.S. Code prohibits defacement of currency only if it is performed with such deceptive intent, or the depicted face value of the currency is altered in a significant way. How effective the tactic is remains to be seen. Would government suddenly take notice if hundreds of thousands or millions of bills were altered with the motto crossed out?
Ironically, religious groups and courts often use the same evidence to argue vastly different conclusions. Money and the "In God We Trust" motto is a case in point. While researching this story we discovered that the religious motto was often cited by religious groups as "proof" of the melding of government and faith, or in support of the notion that America is founded upon Christian religious principles. Other evidence included the opening of congressional sessions with prayer, the display of a Ten Commandments bas relief at the U.S. Supreme Court building, or the fact that the President of the United States takes the oath of office while swearing on a bible. The same sort of evidence, though, often appears in court rulings which decide establishment clause cases. Justices will cite the "In God We Trust" motto, for example, as evidence of a "civic religion," or maintain that it has a secular intent.
One thing remains certain. Despite the convincing evidence that "In God We Trust" has a strong origin in religious sensibilities, it is doubtful that courts today would care to revisit O'HAIR v. BLUMENTHAL, or any other case which proposes to take up this controversial issue. Scratching out "In God We Trust," or stamping separationist slogans on the currency displays the frustration that many Atheists have in dealing with a legal system which rarely holds to a stern and strict interpretation of the establishment clause. The wall of separation goes only so far.
You can bet your money on it.