Apr 15, 2013

'Heathens' and the history of 'In God We Trust'

In a pending federal lawsuit, the Freedom From Religion Foundation is seeking to get "God" taken off of U.S. currency. Previous attempts have been unsuccessful. The group claims that the motto -- which was reaffirmed by Congress in 2011 -- makes full citizenship seem to be contingent on assent with monotheism, and coerces atheists into promoting monotheism, as they're forced to carry and distribute the message "In God We Trust."

According to the lawsuit, the motto on American money violates both religion clauses of the First Amendment, giving a government endorsement to a religious belief and putting a substantial burden on atheists right not to practice religion.

Whatever one thinks of the legal merits of Newdow vs. the Congress of the United States, the complaint offers an extensive and fascinating look at the history or American money's dedication to God. Part of the story is familiar: in the context of Cold War antagonisms, American politicians, including President Dwight D. Eisenhower, were eager for the country to confess God, even if only in the vaguest of terms. Religiousness served to unify Americans against "the Godless commies," and to sanctify economic and political interests.

Less familiar are mid 19th century efforts to put "God" on American money.

In 1861, at the start of the American Civil War, some thought mentioning the divine on coins would be a good response to "heathenism."

Possibly, in particular, the suspected heathenism of Abraham Lincoln.

According to the Freedom From Religion Foundation suit:
On November 13, 1861, Rev. M.R. Watkinson -- characterizing himself as a 'Minister of the Gospel' -- wrote to Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase seeking 'the recognition of the Almighty God in some form in our coins.' Noting to the Secretary that '[y]ou are probably a Christian,' Rev. Watkinson claimed that such recognition was important to 'relieve us from the ignominy of heathenism.' Additionally, the minister argued that such recognition 'would place us under the Divine protection we have personally claimed. From my heart I have felt our national shame in disowning God as not the least of our present national disasters.' In response, on November 20, 1861, Secretary Chase wrote a short note to James Pollock, then the Director of the Mint in Philadelphia, making the purely religious claim that '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.' Secretary Chase then instructed Director Pollock to 'cause a device to be prepared without unnecessary delay with a motto expressing in the fewest and tersest words possible this national recognition.'
Chase was a leader in the Republican party, a strong anti-slavery advocate, and part of the party's radical wing that pushed Abraham Lincoln to be less conservative and cautious. He was religious himself, but it's possible Chase wasn't motivated by his own Christian faith as much as the political desire to thwart the idea that the Lincoln administration was anti-religious. I.e., heathenish.

The president, after all, would, only a year later, tell a group of concerned Protestants that he couldn't know whether or not it was God's will that he free the slaves. Asked to invoke God on behalf of the cause, he resisted. "These are not," Lincoln wrote, "the days of miracles, and I suppose it will be granted to me that I am not to expect a direct revelation. I must study the plain, physical facts of the case, ascertain what is possible, and learn what appears to be wise and right."

That sort of secularism didn't sit well with a lot of Americans, circa 1861. Public, pro forma recognitions of God were more popular. 

It's not clear whether or not anyone was convinced of the goodness of the Union cause by the legend on the coins, though. When Congress took up the issue of the monotheistic inscription four years later, a New York Times editorial noted it sounded a bit like a dying profession of faith, too desperate to be taken at face value. According to the paper:
in view of our recent struggle for national life, does it not sound somewhat like a death-bed repentance? Does it not remind one of the significant words of the MASTER, whose estimate of this common medium was expressed in the words: "Whose image and superscription is this?" Without questioning the good motives that led to the enactment of this new form of national worship, we respectfully submit that such tract-printing by the government is always improper, and, just now especially, ill-timed [....] Let us try to carry our religion -- such as it is -- in our hearts, and not in our pockets.
It's not too hard, interestingly, to find Christian sermons making that last point today, contrasting the cheapness of words on money with what the preacher holds to be true Christian trust in God. Though, typically, conservative Christians are thought to be strong supporters of government declarations of dependance on God, the motto on the money regularly comes in for critique from conservative pulpits. At a Church of God in Conyers, Ga., in a sermon speaking to the 2008 financial crisis, for instance, the pastor preached:
every time we make or spend money, the money reminds us that our trust, as a nation, is not in the money, or the army, or the politicians. Our trust is in God. But is it really? Do we really trust God, or has our trust in God been shaken by the economic crisis that our nation is in? Do we trust in God or are we looking to someone or something else to deliver us?
In Franklin, Wisc., at Victory of the Lamb, a church that's part of the theologically conservative Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod, a whole sermon series was built off of that critique of the national motto. The series was called "In God We (Really) Trust." The church announced the series this way:
'In God We Trust.' The phrase is printed on all our money. But does our nation really trust in God?  
More importantly, do we really trust in God? Just asking the question may offend some of us. Of course I trust in God!  
Perhaps the more pointed question might be: how deeply do I trust in God?  
Jesus makes it clear that trust radically changes the way we look at and think about the world, our money and our God. This series is not for the faint of heart or for those who do not want to be stretched or challenged. 
Presumably neither church goes in for "heathenism," but the way the debate about the motto takes shape in the national discourse, criticism is often assumed to be coming from a place of anti-religious animus. In 1907, for example, when the place of the phrase on the nation's money was being debated again, the Rev. Charles Edward Locke declared, according to the suit now before the federal courts,"I have never heard of any body of men who believe in the sacred principles of patriotism passing resolutions asking to have the sentiment removed, but from my childhood I have heard the blatant protests of infidels and unbelievers against this custom."

That might be a decent description of the folks at the Freedom From Religion Foundation. They might object to the phrase "infidels," but would probably acknowledge, at least, that the reverend was talking about people like them.

The history of efforts to inscribe American money with words of monotheistic devotion, and resistance to those efforts, however, don't sort out so easily into opposition between believers and non-believers. The history of this is complicated, and political, and, as this current lawsuit serves to illustrate, both long and peculiarly fascinating.