Image: Wikimedia Commons / Flickr
To some, it might seem that a group like The Original Motto Project is frivolous or absurd. What, after all, is the actual harm done by In God We Trust? It’s just a bunch of silly stickers and plaques; do we not have anything better to worry about?
The problem is not simply that we do not like the phrase, or that it excludes a significant portion of the population; the true issue is not what In God We Trust means to us – it is what In God We Trust means to others. To use a friend’s brilliant and concise analogy, “In God We Trust is like a gateway drug to bringing more religion into government.”
In 1970, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals heard Aronow v. United States, which was a challenge to the constitutionality of IGWT on US Currency. The court ruled that In God We Trust “is of a patriotic or ceremonial character and bears no true resemblance to a governmental sponsorship of a religious exercise” and that “it is excluded from First Amendment significance because the motto has no theological or ritualistic impact.”
While the court may see the motto in a non-religious light, the vast majority of people do not. Visit the Facebook page of any Sheriff’s Office, Police Department, City Council, or other government agency that makes a show of displaying IGWT and you will find hundreds of comments in support of the motto that specifically reference a deity – or worse.
Take this comment from the Facebook page of the Stone County Missouri Sheriff’s Office (July 26), “In God We Trust…all others keep your hands where we can see them!” This comment from the Sabine Parish Sheriff’s Facebook page (Sept. 3) is less combative, but equally distressing: “We are praying for you all and thank you for the great job you do in upholding the law, serving us, and protecting our communities. May God put his mighty army of angels around you all.”
I’ve written about this issue before on the blog Danthropology, where I argued that most people support IGWT because they view it as a free speech issue for the government official or agency promoting the motto. In that blog post, I examined a survey from the Lebanon Daily Record that showed almost 50 percent of respondents agreed with the motto “because U.S. citizens should defend their right to practice religion publicly.” There are two points here worth noting: that people don’t understand that the government does not have the same free speech rights as private citizens, and that people do in fact see the motto as religious.
But the problem isn’t just with private citizens, government officials are equally confused and ignorant. It’s no coincidence that when I research separation of church and state violations, I often look for government agents and agencies that promote IGWT as a starting point to finding more blatant and severe violations. IGWT displays were how I discovered that the Stone County Sheriff’s Office is using public funds to post Bible passages on their website. My investigations into the use of IGWT were also how I turned up the not-so-subtle message on the Nodaway County Sheriff’s website that features a picture of a patrol car sporting an IGWT decal and captioned with “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God.” If that isn’t a clear message of intention, I don’t know what is.
In Hunt County Texas, Sheriff Randy Meeks believes that his authority comes from God, not the Texas Constitution. In a print-only Op-Ed in the Herald Banner, Meeks said, “When will we wake up to the fact that a country established ‘under God’ is now a Godless nation. People evidently don’t want law and order. They want to kill, threaten and to harm the very officers who are in place to protect them.
Guess where that authority comes from to law enforcement? It comes from God. Read Romans 13:1 in the Bible. And while you are at it, you folks in Ferguson, Baltimore, Arlington and here, take a Gander at Romans 13:2″
As far as I can tell, Sheriff Meeks does not display IGWT on his patrol vehicles, though it isn’t a stretch of the imagination to guess that he would support such a measure. Meek’s comments are also quite ironic given that his department’s mission statement is, “to protect the innocent, enforce the law and provide a safe environment by working in partnership with the citizens of Hunt County demonstrating that everyone matters.” Except Meeks believes that anyone who doesn’t believe in God – i.e. is “Godless” – is also a lawless individual who just wants to murder cops and spread mayhem.
And this brings me to why the fight against IGWT is so important. Not only do people think that IGWT is a religious motto, they believe that it represents the authority of the government. If you disagree with the motto, you aren’t just an atheist, you are also a bad American, Texan, Missourian, Floridian, etc. As the quote above says, “In God We Trust…all others keep their hands where we can see them!” IGWT not only helps perpetuate the idea that the “Godless” are not to be trusted, it gives government agents the sense that their authority really does come from a higher power – a belief directly responsible for the mayhem spread by idiots like Kim Davis. In God We Trust is a gateway to spreading nonsensical, irrational, and outdated beliefs into our governmental systems.