Why “In God We Trust” is a Problem


During the Spanish Inquisition, Catholics would find Jews by looking to see who ate pork.  They’d offer pork to people they suspected of being Jewish, and if they refused to eat it, they were arrested.  Because in the 1400s the only real Spaniard was a Catholic Spaniard.  There was a holy war aimed at getting rid of the unwanted.

There was a holy war in the United States, too, in the 1950s.  There was a man named Joe McCarthy and he waged a holy war against the atheists.  “Today we are engaged in a final, all-out battle between communistic atheism and Christianity,” Joe McCarthy, 1950.

At the start, let me make clear that in my opinion no special credit is due those of us who are making an all-out fight against this Godless force-a force which seeks to destroy all the honesty and decency that every Protestant, Jew and Catholic has been taught at his mother’s knee. It is a task for which we can claim no special credit for doing. It is one which we are obligated to perform. It is one of the tasks for which we were brought into this world-for which we were born. If we fail to use all the powers of mind and body which God gave us, then I am sure our mothers, wherever they are tonight, may well sorrow for the day of our birth…

Jesus wants me to further my political career by being a jerk

Government officials were put on trial, torn apart for anything that seemed vaguely related to atheism, communism, homosexuality, or not quite being patriotic enough.  Many lost their careers and were unable to find work, some were wrongfully imprisoned on laws that were later overturned as unconstitutional — often on the basis of incredibly flimsy evidence and accusations from people with personal motives.

Perhaps you remember HUAC, the House Un-American Activities Committee, which created lists of people who weren’t considered American enough — American in this case meaning Christian Non-Commies.  Over 300 artists were boycotted by Hollywood after being put on HUAC’s blacklist and only 10% of them were able to rebuild careers.  HUAC did local witch-hunts to ferret out people they didn’t like, making sure communities could shun them as Un-American.  Arthur Miller’s play “The Crucible”, about the Salem Witch Trials, was inspired by the way HUAC treated people.  It was truly a witch-hunt and the offenders were Godless.

It is thanks to McCarthyism and HUAC that the phrase “Under God” was added to the Pledge of Allegiance in 1954 and the phrase “In God We Trust” was adopted as the national motto in 1956, over the previous, all-inclusive motto “E Pluribus Unum” — Out of Many, One.  Before the 1950s, the national motto said that the nation was stronger thanks to the many different kinds of people who made up the country; after the 1950s, the national motto said that the nation was stronger because of a Christian God.

To be clear, God was added to the Pledge and as a motto in the 1950s not because of a strong devotion to religion but out of a desire to find and punish atheists.

The House has just overwhelmingly reaffirmed the phrase “In God We Trust” as the national motto.  A completely unnecessary move as George W. Bush signed a law in 2002 reaffirming it as the national motto, along with reaffirming “under God” in the pledge.  Congress reaffirmed it as the national motto 5 years ago.  2 years ago, the phrase was added to the Capitol visitor center.  And this ridiculous vote in the middle of economic crisis that Congress has repeatedly failed to address effectively?  OK, so Congress likes God, now can they please get around to liking their constituents?

Brownie, you're doing a heck of a job

What drives me crazy is the refusal of the American people and the political establishment to recognize that the so-called tradition of God as part of these things only dates back to the 50s.  Everyone seems to think that they were established at the beginning of the country, not as part of a witch-hunt.  And they additionally refuse to recognize that not only is it conflating church and state, it is also endorsing the behavior of McCarthy and HUAC.  SCOTUS on this issue:

It is quite obvious that the national motto and the slogan on coinage and currency ‘In God We Trust’ has nothing whatsoever to do with the establishment of religion. Its use is of patriotic or ceremonial character and bears no true resemblance to a governmental sponsorship of a religious exercise. – Aronow v. United States, 1970

It has everything to do with establishing atheists as a second-class group of citizens and tacitly endorsing McCarthy’s persecution of those he called “Godless”.  If the government is not embarrassed by the blatant disregard of the Establishment Clause, it could at least show the good sense to be embarrassed by Joseph McCarthy.

Why “In God We Trust” is a Problem

9 thoughts on “Why “In God We Trust” is a Problem

  1. 1

    Unfortunately the truth behind the adoption of In God We Trust is far more disconcerting.

    It arose from collective paranoia during a time of duress.

    This is troubling to the highest degree because it illustrates the human capacity to revert to irrational group-think and jingoism given the proper stimulus.

    Those who understand this principle will always divide and conquer.

    The only remedy is the establishment of critical thinking as a paramount goal of the education and media systems.

    De Omnibus Dubitandum

    – Alex Weir

  2. 2

    If only in light of the recent vote by congress the supreme court would revisit the issue above. Perhaps now it would be seen giving sponsorship to a particular religion based on the wording the representative used in his bill.

  3. 3

    That is slightly incorrect. While it is indeed true that “In God we Trust” has only been the motto of the country for the last ~60 yrs, it has been in use long before that, in American culture and throughout the world. The phrase has been on our monetary system for over 150 yrs in fact.

    I do not dispute that it may have been used to target individuals during the second Red Scare, there were a plethora of tactics used at that time, some legal and very defensible, others bordering on and surpassing criminal, just as most government inquisitions are. There are examples of those being targeted by McCarthy and his ilk being quite guilty of actual activities that would endanger the country, but there are also many examples of people being targeted for a single dissenting opinion.

    There are many ways to interpret the usage of “In God we Trust”, there may be some people who use it to target the “godless bastards” or whatever petty and infantile term they use to define atheists. There are many more though that use it as a simple statement that they believe in some higher power that is watching over them. The true danger in attempting to fight against the institution though is offending the majority to strike at the minority. There should be room for people to believe that some higher power, be it God or a Flying Spaghetti Monster, is watching over them, just as there must be room for those who do not believe in their existence. One should not be immediately judged as “unamerican, evil, terrorist etc” for being an atheist, just as one should not be judged as “xenophobic, supportive of repression, antiprogress, etc” for being a christian, muslim, jew, and so on.


    1. 3.1

      You are quite right that it was used on money before it was adopted as the national motto, which I find problematic, but its status as the national motto is directly related to McCarthyism, which was my point. I do not think the religious people who trust in God are necessarily xenophobic or repressive, but that doesn’t mean making it the national motto isn’t xenophobic and repressive. Supporting it as a national motto is not only a repressive act towards those of us who do not believe in “God”, it’s supporting the agenda of one of the most repressive men in this country’s history. If a Christian doesn’t want to be seen as repressive, they always have the option of not actually supporting repression.

  4. 4

    I can definitely see someone like McCarthy, who had a lofty goal, that being protecting America as best he could, and ended up with a witch hunt that led to thousands of ruined lives. The problem have here is that you are trying to (at least from my point of view, I could definitely be wrong) paint a complex multifaceted issue with a brush of black and white. You are choosing to see any Christian who uses the phrase “In God we Trust” as oppressing you, and while I personally expect very little of people and do not believe in theories such as “inherit human goodness”, even I find this hard to believe. That kind of statement is dangerously close to those used by McCarthy to justify his witchhunts. He would say you always have the option of not being unamerican.

    The phrase “In God we Trust” is a comfort for many, an annoyance for some, unnoticed by some, and yes offensive to some. Why should those that draw comfort in using it be limited by others, for does that not trample on their own personal rights, the way you feel yours have been/are being trample on? This is not a simple issue, given the multifaceted nature of the American culture and religious spheres, and it is not one that should be simplified into a support xenophobia or support freedom, for that type of stratification is the root of the problem, and shows the lack of ability to truly understand an issue, and that comes on both sides of this argument, including those Christians/Jews/Hindus/etc who do use their religion as a weapon to target those that don’t follow their faith

    1. 4.1

      I don’t have a problem with any individual using any phrase they like. I have a problem with the government endorsing this particular phrase as it has a history of being used by the government to repress people. And because it violates the Establishment Clause. I would find “We Trust in No Gods” to be comforting, but that doesn’t mean that it would be appropriate for the government to make that phrase the national motto — there is a difference between what the government should be able to do and what an individual should be able to do.

      1. That is quite true, the government has a specific set of defined roles, and must not go beyond them if tyranny is too be avoided. I would be much more supportive of the “In God we Trust” as a motto if it had been established as such early on in the history as opposed to one of the darker points of history. From where I sit the big problem on either side of this argument is some would feel that if it were removed from being the motto there would be a feeling that the country would be becoming “more atheist” or some such nonsense, which could lead to more protests and uglier arguments and not much being resolved.

        The argument here has more to do with the scope of what the government can and cannot do as opposed to what christians may or may not feel. And while yes the government was founded mainly by white european christians, that does not mean that christianity should be forced upon the population. The problem that many will have with this discussion is they will feel that taking away this statement from the national motto would strike a blow to their religious freedom, when the true issue springs from governmental role.

  5. 5

    Ashley your point is so important. It is hard to realize the extent of the damage that the House UnAmerican Activities Committee did. The repression started in 1937 against the National Theater Project (a work program for actors and directors) and didn’t end until 1968 when the Chicago eight were investigated as un-American.
    You are also right that the intent was to exclude and repress non-Christians. California like many states, established its own state committee which required all state employees to sign an oath of allegiance not simply to the country, but to God and country. Ministers, priests, and rabbi were eventually required to sign the oath. (Out of some 40,000 who signed, 8 refused and took their case to the Supreme court, and after several years were victorious.
    The results included avoiding real information about most of the world beginning with the USSR: the one place it was most crucial for US citizens to understand. The campaign also prevented the humanist movement in the US from developing a viable, smart, and compelling practice. Today the US remains the most backward, literal bible believing, and ignorant economically developed nation in the world.
    thank you for raising this context of the House vote.

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