In God We Trust?
As I was leaving a grocery store recently, I noticed a display that was stuffed and overflowing with Christian pamphlets. One of them was entitled, “In God We Trust: What Does It Still Mean?”
Many atheist bloggers and podcasters have explained why they find this motto offensive and have argued that it should be removed from American currency. In response, or perhaps as a pre-emptive move, many theists have claimed that the motto is merely a reference to something they call “ceremonial deism.” Atheists have generally countered this statement with something like, “If it’s merely ceremonial, then what’s the harm in removing it?” To my knowledge, theists have not had an effective response to that query.
For the sake of argument, and also because it’s probably true, I will concede that many people, Christians, Jews, Muslims, probably don’t really care one way or the other whether the phrase remains on American currency. But, as the pamphlet I am about to deconstruct demonstrates, there are some Christians (I have no way of determining how few or how many) who take the phrase seriously and who consider it to be much more than just a “ceremonial” statement.
The pamphlet opens with these statements:
Printed boldly on the back of the United States currency is the motto “In God We Trust.” We have seen it so often that it may have lost its meaning to us. But found in these words is the secret to national and personal greatness.
Webster’s Dictionary defines the word trust as “a firm belief or confidence in the honesty, integrity, reliability and justice of another person or thing.”
When our founding fathers put their names to the Declaration of Independence, they believed that God was the only sure foundation upon which to build a nation that would endure. These men knew that this unique experiment in freedom would only stand the test of time by God’s grace. George Washington stated it simply, “It is impossible to rightly govern the world without God and the Bible”.
These paragraphs clearly demonstrate that the Christians who print and distribute this pamphlet don’t view the phrase, “In God We Trust,” as a simple perfunctory, “ceremonial” statement; they view it as an explicit declaration of Christian faith. Following a dictionary citation that clarifies the author’s use of the word “trust,” he pulls out the old “Christian nation” rhetoric and appeals to the authority of George Washington – Father of Our Country – as if his statement represents the ideals, intentions and beliefs of all of the 56 men who signed the Declaration. Anyone who has read the writings of any of the founding fathers, and read historical and biographical accounts of their lives, knows that some of them were Trinitarian Christians, some were Unitarians, some were deists, etc. There was no singular doctrinal position that encompassed all of them, just as there is no singular doctrinal position that encompasses all Christians today.
The pamphlet goes on:
Reliance upon God was deeply rooted in our country’s important documents and institutions from the beginning. But today confidence in God and His Word is no longer the foundation of society.
If the USA’s important documents are so saturated with statements of reliance upon God, as the author claims, then why doesn’t he cite some statements from the documents to support his assertion? We all know why: because the statements do not exist. Therefore, the author must rely on the ignorance of his audience to accept his authority without question. And why shouldn’t he? Such unquestioning acceptance is drilled into many Christians from their early childhoods. Many children of conservative, evangelical, fundamentalist parents quickly learn what sorts of questions are acceptable and which ones are out of bounds.
Moving on, the pamphlet cites several examples to demonstrate that “confidence in God and His Word is no longer the foundation of society:”
In our schools the God of Creation has been replaced by the “god” of evolutionary chance. Truth has been replaced by relativism. Morality has been replaced by expediency.
In our homes we nightly view things that were unimaginable on television and in movies only a decade ago. Violence, sexual perversion and obscene language spill off the screen.
In the political arena God’s principles of truth and justice have often given way to expedience, personal profit, and compromise.
As we have departed from God, life has been devalued. The lives of unborn children are snuffed out in abortion clinics and the number of robberies, rapes and murders increases daily.
Wow! Homosexuality is the only hot-button issue that the author failed to integrate into this little diatribe. The old creation vs. evolution argument comes out and, no surprise here, evolution is misrepresented as a random, “chance” process. The truth vs. relativism argument is laughable, as science has done more to uncover “truth” than religion ever did. Science has been the key to learning, with great precision, how the universe operates. Religion, with its widely divergent explanations of the universe and humankind’s place in the cosmos is far more relativistic than scientific rationalism. Oh, yes – the pamphleteer will quickly point out that I’m placing all religions on the same plane, which is a grave error. Only one religion is right – and we all know which one that is, don’t we boys and girls? The morality vs. expediency dichotomy is rhetorically clever but substantively empty, as the author does not cite any examples to back up the claim.
Okay, I’ll do the author a favor and cite a couple of examples:
- The current Presidential Administration’s justifications of the use of torture strikes me as a glaring example of tossing aside morality for the sake of expediency.
- The current Presidential Administration’s use of faulty “intelligence” to justify invading and occupying a country that did not, in any way, threaten American security was another morally questionable move. Yes, I know there’s some uncertainty regarding whether the administration’s “intelligence” was merely flawed or faulty, or, more egregiously, completely false. For the sake of argument, I’ll give the benefit of the doubt.
Well, well – look at what we have here! The first two examples of morality being dumped for the sake of expediency that came to my mind were cases in which our nation’s outspokenly evangelical Christian president, aided and abetted by cohorts who may or may not share his faith, committed the offenses. Does that mean that Christianity is the source of expediency rather than morality? That goes against the grain of the usual argument doesn’t it? Maybe the pamphleteer was wise not to cite examples.
Moving on, we get to the old “sex and violence in media” complaint. Well, guess what? No one is forcing Christians to watch late night soft porn on HBO. No one is forcing them to line up at theaters to watch violent, sexually explicit or linguistically profane movies. The availability of those things to the public at large does not impinge on the rights of Christians to refuse to participate in them. We are not responsible if Christians can’t “resist temptation.” Maybe they need to pray harder for their God to “deliver them from evil” rather than insisting that the rest of us cater to their sensibilities in unreasonable and unnecessarily restrictive manners.
The pamphleteer next cites the flaws of the American political system as evidence of a nation that has wandered from its mooring in “God’s principles of truth and justice.” I’ll just cite my previous discussion of George W. Bush’s Christian principles in action. I believe that passage is all I need to say on this matter at this time.
Next, we get a favorite hot-button issue: the value of life as seen through the lens of abortion. Ah yes, those of us who oppose the war in Iraq, support stem-cell research and believe that women should control their own bodies certainly value life far less than those who support an unjust war that has resulted in tens of thousands of deaths and mutilations, who support torture of fellow humans as a combat tactic, and who value blastocysts and embryos more than adult women. Contrary to what our pamphleteer wants readers to believe, believers and nonbelievers alike are represented at all points on the political spectrum on these issues. A comprehensive view of the value of life, human and otherwise, cannot be reduced to one issue, nor can any Christian properly claim to have the one, true Christian view of the issue. Unfortunately, it appears that such complexities and subtleties are beyond the intellectual grasp of our pamphleteer.
The pamphlet winds up to its big finish, the literary “altar call:”
It is time that we return to the values of God’s Word in our public and private lives so that He will heal our land. We must begin person by person on our knees, confessing our failure to trust God fully in our lives.
Today you can affirm your trust in God if you will:
1. Acknowledge that you need salvation: The Bible says, “All have sinned, and come short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23).
2. Recognize God’s love for you: “God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believes in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life” (John 3:16).
3. Receive Jesus and His forgiveness, the only basis for encountering God. “As many as received Him [Jesus], to them gave He power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on His name” (John 1:12).
God is calling you to put your trust in Him today! Don’t ignore His call!
Ah, the old appeals to guilt, fear and Christian elitism. All have sinned…. Even those of who don’t believe in the Christian concept of sin can look back with regret and wish we’d done something differently. It’s easy to feel guilty and it’s easy for religions to build that guilt and feed off of it. And God’s love…. Yeah, he loves me so much that, if I don’t believe and behave exactly has He prescribes (but which of the thousands of “authoritative” prescriptions is the right one?), I will be tortured forever. Nice. Finally, Jesus and His forgiveness form the only basis for encountering God. If one adheres to any religion other than Christianity, regardless of how sincerely that person believes, regardless of how morally that person lives, that person will be tortured for eternity. On the other hand, if one believes the Christian gospel, then one can become a “son” of God. I guess women need not apply.
There you have it – a typical Christian move from “ceremonial deism” to the Christian gospel. It’s clear that, regardless of the sincerity of those who believe that the motto, “In God We Trust,” is simply harmless sentiment, the phrase should be removed from American currency. First, it is not a statement that captures the intent of the founding fathers, and it is erroneous and misleading to present it as such. Second, it is a phrase that some outspoken Christians will continue to use as a bludgeon to beat their view of life into the heads of those who disagree with them. Third and finally, it is not a statement to which all Americans adhere. The right to dissent from such belief should be acknowledged and respected, which is precisely why the founders did not establish a theocracy. They established a secular republic. Secularism has been, and must continue to be, the key to American political, social and economic success. Accordingly, there is no place in a secular republic for a government-sanctioned declaration of trust in God. The sooner we all acknowledge that, the better off all of us, theists, deists, agnostics, atheists and wooists, will be.
– the chaplain