Menus Subscribe Search

You Don't Know America

in-god-we-trust1

(Photo: cwwycoff1/Flickr)

When Did Americans Start Trusting in God?

• February 20, 2014 • 8:00 AM

(Photo: cwwycoff1/Flickr)

It all goes back to the Cold War.

The most unlikely weapons of the Cold War were dollar bills and postage stamps. They, like the Pledge of Allegiance, were remade during the ’50s to reflect a newly necessary religiosity that defined Christian America sharply against the Atheist Soviet Union. “In God We Trust” went from an occasional mantra to the official motto of the country. While coins had featured the inscription for years, nothing was spared those words during the Cold War: everything from bills and bonds to stamps got engraved and etched, while children were freshly required to proclaim their allegiance to “one nation, under God.”

The Pledge of Allegiance was written in 1892, but it wasn’t until 1953 that the words “under God” were added. Drafted by a Baptist minister helping to organize the 400th anniversary celebration of Columbus’ arrival in America, the pledge was designed as a way to honor the American flag and incorporate it into school ceremonies. Reverend Francis Bellamy melded elements of the Declaration of Independence with the Constitution, hoping to encourage civic education.

The pledge had only just been made official by Congress in 1945, when eight years later Senator Homer Ferguson of Michigan proposed adding “under God.” Representative Louis C. Rabaut of Michigan introduced the same resolution in the House of Representatives. By 1954, the same year that Senator Joseph McCarthy held his hearings, it was official: the pledge was amended to include the words “one nation, under God.”

It seems that once Americans starting trusting in God, they just couldn’t stop, converting every piece of political real estate into a testament of faith that defined our cultural religion against the atheism of the Communist World.

Challenges arose almost immediately, though it took 50 years for the issue to reach the Supreme Court, when an atheist from California sued his daughter’s school district. A technicality related to the father’s standing meant that the Supreme Court did not rule on the merits of the case, dodging the question of whether the pledge violates the Establishment Clause. Even the possibility that it might lead Congress to try and ensconce the religious language in a Pledge Protection Act, barring courts from ever altering the words; that act never passed, though an earlier ruling by the Court protects children from being required to recite any portion of the pledge.

While “one nation, under God” has endured, a less successful campaign was directed at America’s postage stamps. Postmaster General Arthur E. Summerfield received countless requests to mandate the printing of “In God We Trust” on all American postage stamps. Civilian pleas came alongside legislative prodding. Representative Rabaut of Michigan (of earlier pledge-changing fame) even got creative, offering to put the words on the cancellation stamp rather than the postage itself.

Summerfield would spend his term as postmaster general dealing with these requests, which he objected to mostly on aesthetic grounds, believing the words would crowd out any additional design with such a small patch of real estate. And Cold War anxiety affected more than stamps: Summerfield also oversaw the failed launch of “missile mail,” a postal delivery that involved letter-stuffed cruise missiles.

Proponents of the mandatory appearance of “In God We Trust” on postage stamps argued that the printing of it on coins (which had occurred intermittently since the Civil War) had only a local effect, circulating within the country, but our postage stamps could take the religious message global. A mandate was never passed, though a single stamp with a portrait of the Statue of Liberty and the banner “In God We Trust” was released in 1954.

With pledges and postage amended as best they could, the zealots turned to the national motto. Pretending as if the United States been not conducting business for over a century with the motto “E PLURIBUS UNUM,” Congress approved “In God We Trust” as the official motto in 1956. As the resolution from the House Judiciary Committee declared: “It will be of great spiritual and psychological value to our country to have a clearly designated national motto of inspirational quality in plain, popularly accepted English.”

Once the motto was settled, Cold Warriors turned to the Treasury Department. Not satisfied with coins bearing the godly inscription, they took on paper currency: adding the words “In God We Trust” denomination-by-denomination until finally in 1966, the words appeared on every bill. It seems that once Americans starting trusting in God, they just couldn’t stop, converting every piece of political real estate into a testament of faith that defined our cultural religion against the atheism of the Communist World.

There have always been objections to these political invocations of holy. Such ostentatious testaments to civic religion offend secularists who claim the state is promoting church as well as believers who protest religious language that can only be protected because it is deemed to have lost its religious meaning. Neither objection is new. In 1963, a retired colonel of the United States Army published the monograph Our Hypocritical New National Motto: In God We Trust. Colonel Abbott Boone’s book is dedicated to “the many millions of sturdy, indomitable American souls who refuse to have their religious allegiances and obligations strait-jacketed by congressional dictate.”

Whether it’s unconstitutional or blasphemous, neither side seems to like these vestiges of the Cold War. Every so often, a movement swells to try and have the motto changed, but like the pennies that bear it, it seems to endure, however impractical. It remains, protected as tradition, even though it’s only a few decades old.

Casey N. Cep
Casey N. Cep is a writer from the Eastern Shore of Maryland. She has written for the New Republic, the New York Times, the New Yorker, and the Paris Review. Follow her on Twitter @cncep.

More From Casey N. Cep

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

July 24 • 4:00 PM

Overweight Americans Have the Lowest Risk of Premature Death

Why do we use the term “normal weight” when talking about BMI? What’s presented as normal certainly isn’t the norm, and it may not even be what’s most healthy.


July 24 • 2:00 PM

California’s Lax Policing of the Fracking Industry Has Put the Drought-Stricken State in a Terrible Situation

The state’s drought has forced farmers to rely on groundwater, even as aquifers have been intentionally polluted due to exemptions for the oil industry.


July 24 • 12:00 PM

What’s in a Name? The Problem With Washington’s Football Team

A senior advisor to the National Congress of American Indians once threw an embarrassing themed party that involved headdresses. He regrets that costume now, but knows his experience is one many others can relate to.


July 24 • 11:00 AM

How Wildlife Declines Are Leading to Slavery and Terrorism

As wildlife numbers dwindle, wildlife crimes are rising—and that’s fueling a raft of heinous crimes committed against humans.


July 24 • 10:58 AM

How the Supremes Pick Their Cases—and Why Obamacare Is Safe for Now

The opponents of Obamacare who went one for two in circuit court rulings earlier this week are unlikely to see their cases reach the Supreme Court.



July 24 • 9:48 AM

The People Who Are Scared of Dogs

While more people fear snakes or spiders, with dogs everywhere, cynophobia makes everyday public life a constant challenge.


July 24 • 8:00 AM

Newton’s Needle: On Scientific Self-Experimentation

It is all too easy to treat science as a platform that allows the observer to hover over the messiness of life, unobserved and untouched. But by remembering the role of the body in science, perhaps we humanize it as well.


July 24 • 6:00 AM

Commercializing the Counterculture: How the Summer Music Festival Went Mainstream

With painted Volkswagen buses, talk of “free love,” and other reminders of the Woodstock era replaced by advertising and corporate sponsorships, hippie culture may be dying, but a new subculture—a sort of purgatory between hipster and hippie—is on the rise.


July 24 • 5:00 AM

In Praise of Our Short Attention Spans

Maybe there’s a good reason why it seems like there’s been a decline in our our ability to concentrate for a prolonged period of time.


July 24 • 4:00 AM

How Stereotypes Take Shape

New research from Scotland finds they’re an unfortunate product of the way we process and share information.


July 23 • 4:00 PM

Who Doesn’t Like Atheists?

The Pew Research Center asked Americans of varying religious affiliations how they felt about each other.


July 23 • 2:00 PM

We Need to Start Tracking Patient Harm and Medical Mistakes Now

Top patient-safety experts call on Congress to step in and, among other steps, give the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention wider responsibility for measuring medical mistakes.


July 23 • 12:19 PM

How a CEO’s Fiery Battle Speeches Can Shape Ethical Behavior

CEO war speech might inspire ethical decisions internally and unethical ones among competing companies.


July 23 • 12:00 PM

Why Do We Love the ‘Kim Kardashian: Hollywood’ Game?

It’s easy enough to turn yourself into a virtual celebrity, complete with fame and mansions—but it will likely cost you.


July 23 • 11:49 AM

Modern Technology Still Doesn’t Protect Americans From Deadly Landslides

No landslide monitoring or warning systems are being used to protect vulnerable communities.


July 23 • 10:00 AM

Outing the Death-Drug Distributors

Calling all hackers: It’s time to go Assange on capital punishment.


July 23 • 8:00 AM

The Surprising Appeal of Products That Require Effort to Use

New research finds they enable consumers to re-establish a feeling that they’re in control of their lives.



July 23 • 6:00 AM

How the Other Half Lifts: What Your Workout Says About Your Social Class

Why can’t triathletes and weightlifters get along?


July 23 • 5:02 AM

Battle of the Public Intellectuals: Edward Glaeser vs. Richard Florida

On gentrification and housing costs.


July 23 • 4:00 AM

Our Fear of Immigrants

Why did a group of fourth graders rally in support of an undocumented classmate while the citizens of Murrieta, California, tried to stop immigrant children from entering their town?


July 22 • 4:00 PM

Can Meditation Really Slow Aging?

Is there real science in the spiritualism of meditation? Jo Marchant meets a Nobel Prize-winner who thinks so.



July 22 • 2:00 PM

The Alabama Judge Who Refuses to Let Desegregation Orders Go Ignored

A federal judge in Alabama says a local school board has failed to meet legal mandate to integrate.


Follow us


Subscribe Now

How Wildlife Declines Are Leading to Slavery and Terrorism

As wildlife numbers dwindle, wildlife crimes are rising—and that's fueling a raft of heinous crimes committed against humans.

How a CEO’s Fiery Battle Speeches Can Shape Ethical Behavior

CEO war speech might inspire ethical decisions internally and unethical ones among competing companies.

Modern Technology Still Doesn’t Protect Americans From Deadly Landslides

No landslide monitoring or warning systems are being used to protect vulnerable communities.

The Link Between Carbs, Gut Microbes, and Colon Cancer

Reduced carb intake among mice protected them from colon cancer.

The New Weapon Against Disease-Spreading Insects Is Big Data

Computer models that pinpoint the likely locations of mosquitoes and tsetse flies are helping officials target vector control efforts.

The Big One

Today, the United States produces less than two percent of the clothing purchased by Americans. In 1990, it produced nearly 50 percent. July/August 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.