In the Founding Fathers We Trust?



9 comments
Kevin Schultz

"In God We Trust" first appeared on U.S. coins during the Civil War in 1864. Nearly a hundred years later, in 1956, an act of Congress made it the national motto. It began appearing on paper currency the following year, in 1957. So it's ascendancy is directly related to two wars, one hot, one cold, but both desperate. Perhaps "There are no atheists in foxholes" didn't have the right ring to it?

"E pluribus unum," on the other hand, was never the official motto, but it did appear on the official seal of the United States, and has since 1782. Interestingly, it's inclusion on the official seal emerged from a recommendation by a committee of Founding Fathers, who had gathered in 1776 no less to craft the symbols of the new nation.

So if we're going by strict constructionism, then, "E pluribus unum" wins the national motto game hands down. But of course our legal body is a flexible thing, changing with the times. So we've got "In God We Trust."

But "E pluribus unum" makes more sense in another historical way too. Most of the Founding Fathers were Christians of some sort or another, and most believed that a religion of future rewards and punishments was a vital part of 18th-century statecraft, but they almost to a man believed that there were more types of religion in the United States than could be described and upheld by a national body. After all, when Ben Franklin asked for a moment of prayer to help ease a particularly thorny debate in the Constitutional Convention, only three or four Founding Fathers thought it was a good idea. Instead, we got the First Amendment.

Perhaps last week's congressional vote to reaffirm the national motto as "In God We Trust" is just another reminder that those trying to prove America's distinct Christian heritage and mission are more interested in winning for souls for Jesus than in understanding the past. Or maybe the War on Christmas really is a real thing. Indeed, there are no atheists in the North Pole.

9 comments:

Chris Cantwell at: November 10, 2011 at 2:47 PM said...

Great post, Kevin. I've always thought America gave up too easily on Latin mottoes.

Thomas Foster up at DePaul has sketched out a similar argument with a little more background detail over at HNN. Reinforces a lot of what you raise here.

http://hnn.us/articles/god-we-trust-or-e-pluribus-unum-founding-fathers-preferred-latter-motto

Kevin M. Schultz at: November 10, 2011 at 3:10 PM said...

Hi Chris,

Thanks for the lead. And just so we're clear, I wrote my piece on the 7th, a day before his appeared! I swear!

Three Chicago guys, barking up the same tree,
Kevin

John Howell at: November 10, 2011 at 4:32 PM said...

I think it's hard not to read the institution of "In God We Trust" as a protection spell cast against the imminent dissolution of a Protestant consensus (not to mention a strike at the rival claims to God's providential favor in Confederate quarters). That said, I don't imagine that the founding fathers quite envisioned the current diversity toward which "pluribus" points in contemporary society, either.

Tom Van Dyke at: November 10, 2011 at 5:40 PM said...

In the same 1782 litter as "E pluribus unum" was "Annuit Cœptis" and "Novus ordo seclorum."

"In God We Trust" seems merely aspirational next to the swaggering assertion that "God has favored our undertakings"; "[A] New Order of the Ages" sounds like that American Exceptionalism that gives some people the willies.

Perhaps "In God We Trust" ain't so bad after all, and we could chill back on this.

Chris Price at: November 10, 2011 at 5:53 PM said...

I always find these statements from Franklin interesting in light of his claim to deism. While he was not orthodox, I don't think he had animosity to Christianity. The 1957 move to put "In God We Trust" on paper bills seems more a slap at the commies maybe meant to protect us from the red menace in some way by reminding us that we weren't commies. It follows very closely after the Second Red Scare. I think its a bit ironic to put "In God We Trust" on our money, though, because it seems we trust in our money--some people even seem to worship it.

Kevin M. Schultz at: November 11, 2011 at 9:45 AM said...

John, hear hear! That said, I'm not sure what diversity you speak of. The anti-Federalists repeatedly lambasted Article VI of the Constitution for allowing "a Jew, a Mohamadean, yea an atheist!" to serve as head of the state. Perhaps it was a mere scare tactic, but they voiced the stakes.

Tom, I think chilling is a good idea on this issue, which is why I can't quite figure out why congress would feel the need to do this useless act when they could be, you know, governing. Perhaps "In God We Trust" should go the same irrelevant way as "Annuit coeptis"?

And Chris, you're right: there aren't many atheists in foxholes.

Tom Van Dyke at: November 11, 2011 at 1:32 PM said...

Well, Mr. Schultz, "Annuit coeptis" is still around on the buck, and has the same pedigree as "E pluribus unum."

It certainly was a piece of political theater, a smoke-'em-out, although I'm not sure the president got the better of it by making the same objection as you do here.

What I was hoping for was Rep. Keith Ellison, our only Muslim, voting in the affirmative, but I see he voted only "present."

Unknown at: December 15, 2011 at 3:13 PM said...

"Indeed, there are no atheists in the North Pole." Lol! That was a great way to end that post.

When it comes to the phrase "E Pluribus Unum", its vagueness can be interpreted by so many in different ways. One book we had to review for my Historian's Craft course this semester that discussed this simple motto was in Diana Eck's "A New Religious America" where she tries to make certain claims that suggest that this phrase was not to mean "From many religions, one religion." (pg.31)
An interesting take on what this motto means.

Unknown at: December 15, 2011 at 3:23 PM said...

"Indeed, there are no atheists in the North Pole." Lol! That was a great way to end that post.

When it comes to the phrase "E Pluribus Unum", its vagueness can be interpreted by so many in different ways. One book we had to review for my Historian's Craft course this semester that discussed this simple motto was in Diana Eck's "A New Religious America" where she tries to make certain claims that suggest that this phrase was not to mean "From many religions, one religion." (pg.31)
An interesting take on what this motto means.

newer post older post