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(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.

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