This Week In History: In God We Trust

During the Cold War, “in God we trust” and “one nation under God” were officially added to the United States’ collective vocabulary. Will Vega writes about the cultural phenomena that led to these changes and how they live on today.

“In God We Trust” has appeared on all of the United States’ paper currency since 1957.

On Oct. 1, 1957, the phrase “in God we trust” first appeared on the U.S. dollar. First printed on the silver certificate, it would eventually reach other forms of U.S. currency, including coins and modern-day Federal Reserve notes. 

It comes from a later verse of “The Star Spangled Banner:” “Then conquer we must when our cause it is just, and this be our motto — ‘In God is our trust.’” The phrase has appeared on coinage somewhat inconsistently since 1864. In 1955, the 84th Congress declared “in God we trust” as the United States’ motto (a resolution that, somewhat strangely by today’s standards, passed unanimously and uncontested in both the House and Senate), replacing “e pluribus unum” and mandating its appearance on currency. 

In the year before, Congress passed a bill adding “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance. The two words traditionally originated in the U.S. mythos from Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, in which he expressed his dedication “that the nation shall, under God, have a new birth of freedom.” 

Eisenhower, who eagerly signed these additions into law, enjoyed a presidency branded by his religious devotion. From his own inauguration, during which he led his own prayer rather than customarily kiss the Bible, to the end of his term he would represent leadership of somewhat of a religious revival in the United States. 

Upon signing the addition to the pledge, Eisenhower said, “From this day forward, the millions of our school children will daily proclaim in every city and town, every village and rural school house, the dedication of our nation and our people to the Almighty… In this way we are reaffirming the transcendence of religious faith in America’s heritage and future; in this way we shall constantly strengthen those spiritual weapons which forever will be our country’s most powerful resource, in peace or in war.”

Many criticisms of these religious exclamations in state-sponsored currency and practices challenge their infringements upon the First Amendment; however, in many such cases courts have ruled that “it is excluded from First Amendment significance because the motto has no theological or ritualistic impact. As stated by the Congressional report, it has ‘spiritual and psychological value’ and ‘inspirational quality’” and that the “primary purpose of the slogan was secular.”

During the Cold War America had begun to shift its stance on faith, with particular emphasis on Christianity, from somewhat of a personal value to one relating to patriotism. In large part, the facets of this movement that were supported by the state were a direct response to atheist practices of Marxist-Leninist nations. While the U.S.S.R. and recently formed People’s Republic of China constitutionally enjoyed religious freedom there were efforts within them to decrease frequency of religious practice and study. 

“Opium of the people,” Karl Marx’ description of religion often taken out of context, doesn’t entirely accurately capture the socialist approach to religion. Opium, viewed less in the 19th century as an addictive menace and more as a medicinal painkiller, was used to describe religious practice as such: “Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions.” 

The dialectical materialism that guides communist philosophy interprets historical and political events through the social conflicts of power and material conditions in which they take place. Many sociologists uphold that part of religion’s purpose for us is as a response to anxieties and fears; Marx believed that religion acts as an answer to the anxieties caused by poverty and alienation under capitalism, and that in societal revolution “To call on [the people] to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions.” This was the leading reason behind Soviet and Chinese social policy, and an idea that the economics of the U.S. run deeply against.

Looking through this lens, historian Kevin Kruse describes the United States’ Cold War-era adoption of patriotism through religion as a marriage of the ideas of capitalism, and state loyalty, to faith. In an election year, this marriage is still plain to see. As major corporations fund religious issues like holding back abortion rights, trans rights and (previously) same-sex marriage from legality, a Christian crowdsourcing website raises half a million dollars for Kyle Rittenhouse (killer of two people protesting against police violence), many churches offer their support for upholding the strength of the United States’ police and military, and each presidential candidate scrambles to assure the people of their own faith, taking photoshoots with Bibles and tying off each speech with a “God bless America,” it’s wise to examine the origin of the zealous aspect of the American political identity, reading deeper into the divine blessings issued by prominent figures unto particular ideas and powers. 

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