The Religious Motto That Isn’t Religious: How ‘In God We Trust’ Remains Constitutional [Part 2]

It turns out that Christian activists are perfectly willing to let federal judges desecrate their religion, so long as the desecration also allows them to promote their religion.

The justices of the Supreme Court of the United States in the 1970s.

The following is the second in a breezy three-part series on the ubiquitous “In God We Trust” motto. The first installment told the story of the motto’s sketchy origin; this second one examines the legality of its presence in a secular nation; and the third reveals the coordinated battle waged by an emboldened Christian nationalist movement. Read now or download the trilogy later this week for a heckuva beach read. – eds

Under Donald Trump, Christian hypocrisy has been making headlines. White evangelicals, who have proclaimed their moral superiority for decades, now support an unethical, corrupt, twice-divorced, thrice-married, adulterer. (Here on RD the Reverend Daniel Schultz recently suggested that it isn’t hypocrisy, but sadism that’s to blame for white evangelical enthusiasm for the president, but that’s a debate for another time.) 

The “In God We Trust” displays in public schools are yet another manifestation of right wing Christian hypocrisy, but since we documented the history of that motto in Part 1, the big unanswered question is this: How did a country that was the first to separate state and church get stuck with a motto that is so obviously and overtly religious?

Government officials in this country are not allowed to use public offices to promote their personal religion. So how is it that the officials are legally allowed to slap “In God We Trust” on our money, on the Capitol, and in our public schools?

It’s because courts have said that the religious motto is not, well, religious. Yes, despite the clear religious history of the motto, which was proposed by a preacher and pushed by Christian nationalists. Despite the congressmen who wanted the motto on our currency to help convert nonbelievers. Despite the fact that the new school laws are part of Project Blitz, a right wing Christian nationalist playbook

Federal courts ignore this religious reality, choosing to focus instead on a legal fiction. Courts have ruled that the phrase “In God We Trust,” which only expresses a religious sentiment, no longer has any “theological or ritualistic impact.” It’s secular to adopt a motto that not only expounds a belief in a god, but claims all citizens “trust” in him.

Courts have upheld other religious rituals and phrases using this same rationale; government prayers, “In God We Trust” as a motto, and “One Nation Under God” in the pledge are no longer religious because any religious freight the words may have been meant to carry originally has long since been lost.” Put another way, they have “lost through rote repetition any significant religious content.”

The Supreme Court employed a similar strategy earlier this summer when it upheld the 40-foot-tall Christian cross in Bladensburg, Md. The fractured majority argued that, because the cross was really old, this preeminent symbol of Christianity had magically transformed into a secular symbol too.

In a government where state and church are meant to be walled off from one another, judges have essentially declared that entrusting this world to God is not a religious sentiment. This proclamation is itself religious. Imagine if these same judges had declared that the ubiquitous John 3:16 or praying the rosary have “no theological or ritualistic” importance because they had been so often repeated. The Christian nationalists’ outrage would, for once, be justified.

What American Christian would let a secular judge declare that his or her god is not religious? Or that trusting in that god is not a religious declaration? Where are Liberty Counsel, First Liberty Institute, Alliance Defending Freedom, Todd Starnes, Fox & Friends, and the rest of the pearl-clutching fearmongers and their claims of religious persecution? No less than ten federal courts have said that trusting in their god is not a religious statement. Where is the righteous rage?

And therein lies the hypocrisy. Christian nationalism benefits when the federal courts declare that “In God We Trust” is not religious. This wink-wink rationale allows the motto that was designed to be religious, which everyone understands to be religious, and which religious legal groups defend with a religious fervor, to remain on our coins. And in our schools. And in the Capitol. This hypocritical legal fiction allows Christian nationalists to use the machinery of the state to promote their personal religious agenda. It turns out that Christian activists are perfectly willing to let federal judges desecrate their religion, so long as the desecration also allows them to promote their religion.

So whenever you see “In God We Trust” cut into coin, engraved on a government building, or in a public school, remember this: the phrase is not only a monument to Christian hypocrisy, it’s also a denigration of Christianity.