Despite the ideals of separation of church and state, the United States has always had a complicated relationship with religion. The Declaration of Independence mentions God four times, many of the Founding Fathers frequently invoked their religion in writings and speeches and the Liberty Bell has a Bible verse engraved on it. But the U.S.’s not-so-subtle use of religious imagery and vocabulary was furthered in the 1950s, when, in an attempt to reemphasize the country’s supposedly spiritual roots, the country’s motto was changed from the unofficial “E Pluribus Unum” to “In God We Trust.”
While the new motto was added to all forms of currency and emblazoned above the House and Senate chambers in the U.S. Capitol, many state and local government facilities, such as courthouses, didn’t add the phrase to their architecture. However, over the past four years, courthouses across Nebraska have taken to putting up signs with the statement at the request of a Nebraska resident who has traveled to 92 of Nebraska’s 93 courthouses requesting the adage be displayed. Earlier this week, she requested the same from Lancaster County.
Though it may seem reasonable to put the national motto in courthouses across the state, it represents a desire to push the United States further away from the ideals of separation of church and state. As such, Lancaster County should refrain from associating itself with the phrase “In God We Trust.”
For one thing, the motto itself has always been little more than a political tool intended to push the United States toward specific religious and political ideals. Though it first originated during the Civil War, the phrase, along with the strong religious sentiments it carries, was revived in the 1950s. It was used to emphasize the U.S.’s supposed roots in Christian ideals and to assure Americans that, in the midst of the fear of communism, God was on the side of the capitalist United States.
In short, “In God We Trust” was enacted with two specific goals in mind: to emphasize the government’s religious underpinnings and to rally support for the national interest during the Cold War. Rather than signify a desire to unify the country under a message of equality before a higher power, as has been argued on at least one occasion, “In God We Trust” was always intended to drive political action and create support for nationalist fervor.
With this in mind, the exaltation of our nation’s motto can hardly be justified as only promoting togetherness. But even if that had been the phrase’s original intent, in actuality, it creates and perpetuates division among groups.
The adage has spurred multiple lawsuits across the United States from citizens who claim its presence on government buildings and currency constitutes religious bias within supposedly secular government institutions. Defenders of the adage argue it has no religious meaning, but is rather a symbolic evocation of God. However, it seems unreasonable to believe a phrase centered entirely around the idea of a God is not religious in nature or that those who fervently wish to push its further use in government institutions are doing so because they respect the motto for its symbolism and not because of the religious message it sends.
Looking beyond the problems inherent in the motto, there doesn’t seem to be much of a point in putting the expression up anyways. The United States went nearly 200 years without it, and Nebraska courthouses have existed for upwards of 150 years without having the motto flying high for all to see, so why even add it?
The most likely answer to this question would be that showcasing the motto at courthouses nationwide is a sign of patriotism. While this isn’t an unreasonable argument to make, seeing as it is the national motto, the phrase is just as good, if not better, at dividing people as it is at bringing them together. As such, using “In God We Trust” as a way of uniting in the name of patriotism isn’t particularly effective.
Alternatively, if courts are searching for a way to show patriotism without evoking politically and religiously charged terminology, they could instead go with “E Pluribus Unum.” This phrase reflects American ideals of individuality and common purpose represented by the diverse yet intertwined states. Or, they could just not put up a sign at all.
Lancaster County has long managed to survive without having “In God We Trust” hung up in its hallways. It should stay that way.