History of Motto “In God We Trust” and “Under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance

By Ralph C. Reynolds, former President, Rochester Chapter,
Americans United for Separation of Church and State
(Written about the year 2000 or before.)

Before the days of credit and debit cards, one used to see signs
similar to the one above in diners, service stations, food stores, and
many other establishments, obviously playing on the use of the motto “In
God We Trust” that is on our coins and paper currency. It may come as a
surprise to many younger and even not so young persons that this was not
always so, that the regular use of “In God We Trust” on US coins did not
begin until 1908, “In God We Trust” was not made an official motto of the
United States until 1956, and the motto did not appear on paper money
until 1957. The history of the choice of “In God We Trust” as an
official motto of the United States and the practice of placing “In God
We Trust” on coins and bills is a tale of historical revisionism, perfidy
by our elected representatives and appointed officials, and
ecclesiastical opportunism whose results have tended to eat away at the
foundations of our liberties and threaten the very idea of the separation
of church and state.

In contrast to the Declaration of Independence, and quite
deliberately, the Constitution of the United States contains not a single
reference to a deity or to divine inspiration. This was, of course, due
to the genius of the founding fathers who saw in Europe and elsewhere the
strife that had been engendered by the adoption of official religions in
nearly all Old World countries. Yet we frequently see in letters to the
editor and elsewhere the claim that the US was created and remains a
Christian nation. I have had several e-mail notes from evangelicals and
fundamentalists who have maintained the same thing. When pressed as to
where this idea comes from, they point to the words “In God We Trust” on
all our money and the phrase “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance to
the Flag. Well, how did this come about? How did the clearly
unconstitutional words “In God We Trust” and “under God” come to appear
on our money and in our Pledge of Allegiance?

In the early years of our country, around 1800, when church
affiliation was perhaps 10% (some authorities say up to 17-20%) of the
population, the motto on our coins, then the major medium of exchange,
was often just “LIBERTY.” In 1776, Congress appointed John Adams,
Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson to design a Great Seal for the
fledgling country. The motto they adopted for the Great Seal was E
Pluribus Unum, meaning “from many, one” or “one unity composed of many
parts.” Although the design was rejected, the motto was adopted by the
designers of the Great Seal approved by Congress in 1782. The motto was
first used on coins of the United States mint in 1795, and both legends,
that is, LIBERTY and E Pluribus Unum, were used somewhat regularly on
coins throughout the nineteenth century.

By 1860 the proportion of church-related persons in the United
States had slowly doubled or tripled to about 40% of the population, and
during and following the Civil War, there was a burgeoning of religious
fanaticism in America that built on a general feeling fed by the clergy
that the Civil War was God’s punishment for omitting His name from the
Constitution. In 1863, eleven Protestant denominations banded together
to petition the Congress to correct the oversight by the founders and
“reform” the Constitution to indicate that the United States was created
as and remained a Christian nation. Thus, the so-called National Reform
Association submitted the following additions to the preamble:

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 nations, his revealed will as the supreme law
of the land, in order to constitute a Christian government, and in order
to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic
tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare,
and secure the inalienable rights and the blessings of life, liberty, and
the pursuit of happiness to ourselves, our posterity, and all the people,
do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of
America.

The Christian amendment never gained the approval of the Congress or
of any of the states. When introduced again in 1874 it never got out of
committee. In its heyday, however, in the early 1860s, the NRA (not the
gun people) had as members many prominent men including a Supreme Court
Justice, William Strong, and two ex-governors of Pennsylvania, J.W. Geary
and James Pollock. The stated and well-known goal of the NRA was the
creation of a Christian theocracy in the United States. Although they
were singularly unsuccessful in their primary goal of amending the
preamble, the organization lasted through the first half of the twentieth
century and apparently still had registered lobbyists in the late 1950s.

Our story now takes another tack as President Lincoln had in 1861
fortuitously appointed the religious zealot and NRA member James Pollock
as Director of the Mint. In November 1861, a certain Rev. Mark Richard
Watkinson, pastor of a Baptist church in Delaware County, Pennsylvania,
wrote a letter to Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase pointing out
that the lack of “recognition of the Almighty God in some form on our
coins” was a serious oversight by those responsible for the nation’s
coinage. The good pastor recommended that the Goddess of Liberty be
replaced by a specified arrangement of 13 stars, the words “perpetual
union,” the all-seeing eye crowned with a halo, and a flag with the words
“God, liberty, law” written within the folds of the bars. “This,” said
the parson, “would make a beautiful coin to which no possible citizen
could object. This would relieve us from the ignominy of heathenism.
This would place us openly under the divine protection we have personally
claimed….”

Obviously moved by these eloquent words, Secretary Chase wrote a
letter to his Director of the Mint, James Pollock: Dear Sir: 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. You will cause a device to be prepared without
unnecessary delay with a motto expressing…this national recognition.

Pollock leapt at this chance and in 1863 submitted several designs
to Chase that incorporated variations of the mottos “Our Trust is in God”
and “God and Our Country.” Shortly after the designs were submitted in
December 1863, Secretary Chase notified Pollock that the mottos were
approved but suggested that they should be modified to place “Our God and
Our Country” on one coin and “In God We Trust” on another. In 1864
Congress agreed to this proposal by passing a law that contained the
words, “…and the shape, mottoes, and devices of said coins shall be
fixed by the director of the mint, with the approval of the Secretary of
the Treasury.” Thus, unable to convert the nation into a theocracy by
legal means, the avowed supporter of Christian theocracy was given
another chance and succeeded in his goal of subverting the Constitution.
The nation now officially recognized God as its protector through the
agency of the United States mint.

Things were pretty quiet for about 40 years as the government
solidified the nation’s position as a de facto Protestant theocracy.
Church affiliation is reported to have risen to well over 40% of the
population in the latter half of the century. Protestants dominated the
positions of power in both the government and the private sector.

Now the coinage act of 1864 did not specify the wording to be placed
on the coins, and this fact opened the door to further mischief as the
act provided that the Secretary of the Treasury, acting on the advice of
the Director of the Mint, could change the wording at any time.
President Theodore Roosevelt, whose term of office started in 1901, was a
staunch admirer of the sculptor Saint-Gaudens, and he persuaded Treasury
Secretary Shaw to commission Saint-Gaudens to provide new designs for the
nations coinage. Saint-Gaudens, however, disapproved of the use of “In
God We Trust” on coins for aesthetic reasons, and it turned out that
Theodore Roosevelt. also disapproved of the motto “In God We Trust” on
coins, but for religious reasons, not aesthetic ones. Roosevelt thought
that having the “In God We Trust” motto on common coins that were abused
in all sorts of manners was close to sacrilege.

When these views attacking the use of the inscription “In God We
Trust” were made public, there was a huge public outcry, and the White
House and members of Congress were deluged with protests and petitions
from the religious sectors demanding the restoration of “In God We Trust”
to the coinage. Quickly caving in to the public outcry, Roosevelt
notified the House and Senate leadership that he would not veto a bill
specifying that “In God We Trust” be inscribed on all coins if it passed
both houses. A bill was indeed passed by the House in March and by the
Senate in May of 1908; the bill became Public Law No. 120 when signed by
Roosevelt on May 18, 1908. The law said in part, “Be it enacted by the
Senate and the House of Representatives of the United States of America
in Congress assembled, that the motto ‘In God We Trust,’ heretofore
inscribed on certain denominations of gold and silver coins of the United
States of America, shall hereafter be inscribed on all such gold and
silver coins of said denominations as heretofore.”

The extension of the use of the “In God We Trust” motto to paper
money came about as paper currency more and more assumed the status of
the principal medium of exchange in the country. As the country had
experienced over 40 years of exposure to the motto on our coins without
serious protest, in the late 1940s some religionists thought it was about
time that the motto was placed on our paper currency to thank the Lord
for preserving us through the terrible war that had just ended [ignoring
the fact that the German army had the motto “Gott mit Uns” (God with us)
inscribed on their belt buckles]. In 1953, one Matthew R. Rothert of
Arkansas, president of the Arkansas Numismatic Society, presented the
idea of putting “In God We Trust” on all paper money to a meeting of his
group. The favorable reaction by his audience prompted him to send a
written proposal for such a change to Treasury Secretary Humphrey, but he
also sent copies of the correspondence to Commerce Secretary Weeks and to
President Eisenhower. This single letter prompted the Eisenhower
administration in June 1955 to recommend to Congress a bill (H.R. 619)
that would “[provide] for the inscription of ‘In God We Trust’ on all
United States currency and coins.” Introduced into the House, a
representative from Florida characterized the object of the bill as,
“…in these days when imperialistic and materialistic communism seeks to
attack and destroy freedom,…” a way 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 trusts 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.'”

Introduced amidst the Cold War hysteria of the 1950s, this bill was
rapidly approved by the House and shortly thereafter by the Senate with
little debate. The words “In God We Trust” have appeared on all United
States currency issued after October 1, 1957.

Emboldened by the rapidity with which the Congress embraced the use
of the “In God We Trust” motto on paper money, Congressional forces still
energized by rampant McCarthyism and anti-Communism thought it the
opportune time to make the “In God We Trust” motto the “national motto.”
Introduced on March 22, 1956, H.R. Res. 396 was quickly approved and
signed into law on July 30, 1956 (36 U.S.C. Section 186), thus completing
the campaign of the religionists to instill the Christian nation idea
into the consciousness of all Americans through the agency of a few
individuals who found a way to circumvent the normal safeguards of
liberty enshrined in the United States Constitution.

Challenges to the “In God We Trust” Motto

The use of “In God We Trust” as the motto on our paper currency and
coins has been subject to legal challenges in the courts. In the first
such case, Aronow v. United States (1970), the United States Court of
Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled that, “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 a patriotic or ceremonial character and bears no
true resemblance to a governmental sponsorship of a religious exercise.”
A second challenge, Madalyn Murray O’Hair v. W. Michael Blumenthal,
Secretary of the Treasury, et al. (1978) was heard in the United States
District Court, Western District of Texas. The court opined that, based
on the above ruling by the Ninth Circuit court, “From this it is easy to
deduce that the Court concluded that the primary purpose of the slogan
was secular; it served a secular ceremonial purpose in the obviously
secular function of providing a medium of exchange.” Several other court
cases were also unsuccessful despite the plaintiffs assertion that the
motto was clearly of a religious nature in making a statement about God
and encouraging belief in that God. Americans ask piety in presidents,
not displays of religious preference. New York Times editorial, Jan. 31,
1984

Does the Motto Pass the Lemon Test?

The three-pronged Lemon test for constitutionality under the First
Amendment was delineated in the majority opinion written by Chief Justice
Warren Burger in Lemon v. Kurtzman (1971) as “First, the statute must
have a secular legislative purpose; second, its principal or primary
effect must be one that neither advances nor inhibits religion; finally,
the statute must not ‘foster an excessive government entanglement with
religion.'” This view was affirmed in, for example, Committee for Public
Education and Religious Liberty v. Nyquist (413 U.S. 756, 1973), which
declared New York parochial school aid unconstitutional. Recently.
several court observers have questioned the usefulness of the Lemon test,
and although it has not been formally overruled, many recent
establishment clause cases have been decided without referring to it.
Nevertheless, it is the opinion of many observers that the laws
specifying the national motto and providing for the placement of the
motto on currency and coins of the United States clearly fail all three
parts of the Lemon test.

THE PLEDGE OF ALLEGIANCE

I pledge allegiance to my Flag and (to) the Republic for which it
stands: one Nation, indivisible, with Liberty and Justice for all.

This pledge was issued by the executive committee at the dedication
of the World’s Fair Grounds in Chicago, IL, on October 21, 1892;
subsequent research suggested that it was written by the Committee
chairman, Francis Bellamy (United States Flag Association, 1939).
Originally consisting of 22 words, the word “to” was added immediately
after the first celebration. The pledge was first revised at the First
National Flag Conference in 1923 when the words “the Flag of the United
States” were substituted for “my Flag,” and the words “of America” were
added to that phrase at the Second National Flag Conference in 1924. (We
might note in passing that the United States is the only country in the
world that pledges allegiance to a flag!) The pledge of allegiance did
not, however, become the official Pledge of Allegiance to the Flag until
Public Law 79-287 was signed on December 28, 1941 by President F.D.
Roosevelt to prepare it for service in the war effort.

Nevertheless, the Pledge of Allegiance remained thoroughly secular,
as demanded by the Constitution, for 62 years. Then, in the early 1950s,
as with the national motto, a group of religionists used the concerns of
the cold war against “Godless” communism to remedy the lack of foresight
of the writer of the pledge in omitting any reference to Christianity or,
the next best thing, to God. But this time it was a Roman Catholic
organization that got the ball rolling when the Knights of Columbus began
a campaign that would alter the fundamental relationship of our national
government to the governed that had existed for 178 years.

The Knights of Columbus had apparently in 1951 instituted their own
version of the Pledge of Allegiance for use at their meetings that
contained the words “under God.” Seeing that the time was right, they
enlisted the cooperation of the American Legion in lobbying the Executive
branch and the Congress to add “under God” to the pledge. Ignoring the
Constitution and caving in to the expediency of the moment, President
Eisenhower expressed support for the measure, and it was passed on Flag
Day, June 14, 1954.

This was a major expansion of the religious province of government
officials; what had previously been expressions of personal piety, as in
Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and the Emancipation Proclamation, were now
transmogrified into the first religious test instituted for citizens of
this nation. Clearly the addition of “under God” to the Pledge of
Allegiance is an “establishment of religion” and thus is clearly
unconstitutional.

Conclusions

This brief history of the paths by which the national motto, “In God
We Trust”, was born and caused to be placed on our paper currency and
coins and the words “under God” were added to the Pledge of Allegiance
demonstrates that these actions were never approved by the mass of the
American people but were the result of opportunistic actions of, by and
large, two religious fanatics acting 90 years apart. But James Pollock
and Matthew Rothert could only accomplish these acts with the inadvertent
help of Theodore Roosevelt and the acquiescence of many government
officials and elected representatives who forgot that they were charged
with upholding and defending the Constitution of the United States. What
can be done about this situation? For the present, perhaps, nothing, but
we can still correct the false ideas that many persons hold that “In God
We Trust” has “been on our money since year 1” and that the presence of
the motto indicates that we are a Christian nation and thus the mass of
us should accommodate Christians when they seek to override the
Constitution. Then perhaps someday we can restore the proper motto for
our diverse nation, E Pluribus Unum, to its rightful place as emblematic
of American democracy.

It has been pointed out by some ecclesiastics that the motto “In God
We Trust” does not mention Christ or Christianity, but indeed, includes
over 90% of the population that believes, according to recent surveys, in
“God,” whether they are Christians or not. This appears to be mere
dissimulation; the phrase “In God We Trust” has never been used by Jews
or Muslims or any other faith that is based on the monotheistic God of
the Jews except Christianity. The phrase “In God We Trust” does not
appear in the Bible. Although there are many passages in the “Old
Testament” that refer to placing one’s trust in the Lord, the New
Testament contains only two passages that, in the Authorized (King James)
version, refer to trusting in God, namely, 1 Timothy 4:10 (“For therefore
trust in the living God,…”) and 2 Corinthians 1:9 (“…we should not
trust in ourselves, but in God….”). Although these passages have been
quoted by Bible believers as precedent for the use of “In God We Trust”
as a national motto and on our currency and coins, the word “trust” does
not appear in these passages in other translations of the Bible such as
the Revised Standard Version and the New English Bible. Thus, this
contention presupposes, of course, that the King James version is the
only acceptable translation of the Bible and that all Americans must
accept the Bible as the inerrant “word of God.”
POSTSCRIPT by Charles Sumner:

An element of the American religious community has always through our
history been intolerant of the beliefs of others. When Article VI was
proposed for the Constitution there was a loud outcry that this might
allow infidels, Jews, and others to hold public office. When Thomas
Paine wrote “The Age of Reason” he was (in spite of his valuable services
in the Revolution) denounced as “that filthy little atheist.” When
Thomas Jefferson ran for president he was vilified because of his
deistic principles.

There are still those people today who think that they need to use the
government to further their religion. They want to coerce prayer in
school among impressionable youth, fund religious schools with tax
monies, pour billions of dollars into religious groups without adequate
controls, post the Ten Commandments in every school and courthouse, teach
the religious concept of “creationism” in science classes, and some would
like to put “In God We Trust” on the state flag.

Unless people who value our diversity and want equal rights for all take
action, we will gradually lose our religious liberty. Speak up for the principle
which made our churches strong and independent and our nation free.