In God We Trust: the abuse of reality

In 1964 Henry Morgenthau, the founder of realist international relations theory, advised that we should not be deceived by the glaring discrepancy between America’s professed values and the actual historical record. Morgenthau claimed that the professed ideals of America—liberty, justice, freedom, and self-determination—constituted reality, whereas the record of America’s imperialist, colonialist, white supremacist history merely reflect “the abuse of reality.” To claim the discrepancy between profession and fact as evidence of America’s true nature was, for Morgenthau, to commit “the error of atheism, which denies the validity of religion on similar grounds.” What Morgenthau (and most Americans) failed to grasp is that professed values are often the motivation behind the actions that lead to the apparent discrepancy between “reality” and fact.

The national motto In God We Trust is no different. While ostensibly meant to represent all Americans and American Values™, in fact it represents the motivation behind so much discrimination and barbaric behavior. In God We Trust should offend not only atheists, but every racial minority in America, whose ancestors had committed against them all manner of atrocities in the name of divine providence and Christian civilization: enslavement, mass rape, forced removal, forced conversion, and genocide.

John Winthrop’s “shining city on a hill” justified the annexation of native lands using Genesis 1:28: “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.” Because of the native failure to “adequately subdue the soil,” the English felt themselves justified to wage a war of extermination on the natives that refused to leave “English” lands. The centuries that followed would see the genocide against the native population of North America continue, driven by the American belief in a “manifest destiny to overspread the continent allotted by Providence….”

The enslavement of black people in the United States was justified on religious grounds. In 1837, South Carolina Senator William Harper wrote that slavery abounded in the bible and that “do they not blaspheme the providence of God who denounce as wickedness and outrage, that which is rendered indispensable [slavery] to His purpose in the government of the world?” In other words, opposing slavery at made one a blasphemer and an enemy of God. Harper’s sentiments were widespread in the south—to some degree, they still are. George Wallace, during his swearing in ceremony in 1963, had a banner reading In God We Trust conspicuously placed on the podium. That same day, Wallace would make his famous “segregation forever” speech, referencing the banner “as physical evidence of determination to renew the faith of our [founding] fathers and to practice the free heritage they bequeathed to us.” The “free heritage” was, of course, the right for whites to impose segregation on the rest of society without consequence or interference.

Yet, we aren’t supposed to mention any of this, lest we confuse facts with “reality.”

The God of In God We Trust is the same white, Anglo-Saxon, protestant god use to give the colonizers of America license to rape, torture, enslave, and kill natives and black people. It is the same god of racists used to give them license to resist inclusivity and diversity, casting themselves as martyrs in the process. It is the god of the privileged and the powerful. The facts of history are not abuses of reality. The facts of history shed light on the so-called divine mission of the United States and reveal that the “reality” erected by the privileged and powerful is constructed from the blood, bones, and bondage of so many unfortunate souls.

In a way, In God We Trust is a fitting motto: he is a god that rains death from above, murders innocent children in their sleep, dispossess people of their land, demands sacrifice for his glory, and punishes with unrestrained vengeance the most inconsequential acts of defiance.

Supporting In God We Trust is to give tacit endorsement to the barbaric crimes committed by the white, Anglo-Saxon colonizers in the pursuit of their divine mandate to rule the world.


Image: / Robert Adams

Thomas Essel

Thomas Essel is an outspoken secular activist and serves as Assistant Director for The Original Motto Project. Thomas also writes for the Patheos Atheist blog Danthropology and his work has appeared in the Springfield News-Leader. You can contact Thomas at: