October 2, 2008

In Favor Of A Minor Iconoclasm

The phrase "in God we trust" first appeared on United States currency today. In 1957.

"In God We Trust" did not appear on the money used by the Founders. Consider, for example, this image of a Revolutionary-era paper note for two-thirds of a dollar, issued by the state of Maryland. Or this seventy-five cent note from North Carolina issued in 1817. No God anywhere, either in text or in pictorial symbols.

The use of the phrase, adopted as a second motto for the country in the late days of the Civil War, was intended to reinforce the wave of resentment, fear, and national unity in response to the threat posed by global communism. Both Maoist and Stalinist flavors of communist socialism were explicitly atheistic, and they were the enemy in those days. And our currency was the strongest, most reliable money on the planet, used world-wide. So God made it on to the money so we could stick it to the Reds.

1957's adoption of "in God we trust" was a change, an innovation. And it matters intensely to some people, who consider the potential removal of this phrase from currency to be an* intrusion on their personal relationship with God.

It has been argued, even by jurists who usually inspire respect and praise from me for their thoughtfulness, that the use of explicitly religious phrases like this in civic life have become functionally meaningless. Take, for example, Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, concurring in the case of Elk Grove Unified School District v. Newdow (2004) 524 U.S. 1, concerning the use of the late grafting of the phrase "under God" to the Pledge of Allegiance:
There are no de minimis violations of the Constitution--no constitutional harms so slight that the courts are obliged to ignore them. Given the values that the Establishment Clause was meant to serve, however, I believe that government can, in a discrete category of cases, acknowledge or refer to the divine without offending the Constitution. This category of "ceremonial deism" most clearly encompasses such things as the national motto ("In God We Trust"), religious references in traditional patriotic songs such as the Star-Spangled Banner, and the words with which the Marshal of this Court opens each of its sessions ("God save the United States and this honorable Court"). See [County of] Allegheny [v. American Civil Liberties Union, Greater Pittsburgh Chapter (1989) 492 U.S. 573], at 630 (opinion of O'Connor, J.). These references are not minor trespasses upon the Establishment Clause to which I turn a blind eye. Instead, their history, character, and context prevent them from being constitutional violations at all. [¶] This case requires us to determine whether the appearance of the phrase "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance constitutes an instance of such ceremonial deism. Although it is a close question, I conclude that it does...
Frankly, I think Justice O'Connor, despite a detailed and thoughtful evaluation of the history of this and similar phrases, got it wrong here. While I understand that it is offered as a balm to smooth over an emotional flashpoint, I reject categorically the concept of "ceremonial deism." An invocation of God is, by definition, not a secular act. The idea of "ceremonial deism" being meaningless is disproved by the very fact that religious people get intensely upset about the idea of removing the phrase -- people would not get upset about something which truly lacks meaning. 1957's adoption of "in God we trust" was a change, an innovation. And it matters intensely to some people, who consider the potential removal of this phrase from currency to be an intrusion on their personal relationship with God,* which of course is sheer nonsense. Christians do not worship money, they worship Christ, and the act of worship does not necessitate the use of money in any fashion.

Although the oft-repeated and little-understood exhortation of Jesus to "Give unto Caesar what is Caesar's" smells like a pro-establishment edit into the disestablishmentarian Christian Gospels to me, the underlying sentiment is a good one regardless of its true source: civil and religious authorities are fundamentally different and not to be confused with one another. But putting "In God We Trust" on money, or in other fora of public and governmental expression, the government is 1) explicitly stating that there is a god in the first place, 2) telling the public that this god is worthy of trust, and 3) implying that good citizens should agree with the government in trusting the god in question -- thereby advocating the worship of that deity. And since I do not believe that there is a god in the first place, my response to this symbolic message is that a reminder that I am a member of a despised minority.

So I'm in favor of a little bit of iconoclasm here -- a secular government should not invoke Jehovah (for is there any doubt that Jehovah is the "God" in whom we should trust?) or impliedly advocate the existence or worship of any particular deity. Not enough to launch a crusade or even engage in petty howl-at-the-moon kinds of passive-aggressive sorts of protest. My money spends just as well with God on it as it would off of it, and for the most part I use electronic money for transactions anyway.

I would prefer to see the phrase replaced with the original motto of the United States: "E Pluribus Unum." The money looks just as good with that phrase.

* I almost typed "sacrilege" until it occurred to me what the real meaning of that word is. I'm not making that up.

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