November 13, 2011

A Matter of Mottos

Earlier this month, the House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly to reaffirm “In God we trust” as the official motto of the United States. Of course, the motto was not about to expire, so the vote and the half-hour of discussion that preceded it were a complete waste of time. President Obama had once mistakenly identified “E pluribus unum” as the nation’s motto in a speech, however, and the Republicans saw an opportunity to embarrass, however trivially, the leader for whom they have such little respect.

This pointless incident in Congressional legislative history nonetheless offers an opportunity to consider just what our national motto might say about us. In fact, “In God we trust” and “E pluribus unum” seem to represent two views of America competing for ascendency.


“E pluribus unum,” usually translated “out of many, one,” is one of three Latin phrases on the Great Seal of the United States, which was adopted by Congress in 1782. (The other two are “Annuit cœptis” and “Novus ordo seclorum.”) Though a prominent phrase, “E pluribus unum” seems never to have been declared the official U.S. motto.

Great Seal of the United States “In God we trust” first appeared on U.S. coins during the Civil War, a practice recommended by Lincoln’s Secretary of the Treasury, Salmon Chase. In 1956, during the Cold War against “godless Communism,” it was declared by Congress to be the official national motto. The next year, it was added to paper currency. This was the same period during which the words “under God” were added to the Pledge of Allegiance, presumably to distinguish us from our cold war rival, the Soviet Union. (See “The Pledge of Allegiance Revisited” and “Out of Many, One.”)

In 2006, the Senate, celebrating the 50th anniversary of “In God we trust” having been declared our motto, passed a resolution reaffirming the choice. The recent action by the House of Representatives was, of course, simply celebrating the raw political power of the Republican Party and its Tea Party wing.

That said, the House vote did not seem especially partisan. The resolution was carried by a 396–9 majority, with two members voting “present.” Even in what is supposed to be a secular state, voting against God is a tough thing to do. (Only one Republican did so.)

One might think that having a seemingly religious motto would be a violation of the First Amendment’s prohibition of laws respecting “an establishment of religion,” but the Supreme Court has allowed the invocation of God in the public square as innocuous instances of “ceremonial deism,” a term coined by the late Yale Law School dean, Eugene Rostow. Apparently, judges are as reluctant to vote against God as are legislators.

A Tale of Two Mottos

A motto is intended to say something important about the entity adopting it. It can articulate a guiding principle, or it can, in some sense, characterize that entity. Finding a motto for a nation is a particularly daunting task, as even harmonious and homogeneous countries are complex communities possessed of diverse aspects. Mottos are not essays, however, and the need for brevity necessitates merciless culling of candidate principles or attributes. Curiously, neither “E pluribus unum” nor “In God we trust” alludes to concepts such as liberty, freedom, or democracy, any one of which might be considered an essential element of the American experiment.

Nevertheless, “E pluribus unum” would make a splendid motto for the United States. Its primary defect is that the phrase is in Latin, which is not seen as a particularly democratic language.

Though terse, “E pluribus unum” manages to convey two distinct meanings. Originally, it referred to a nation formed of 13 separate colonies. Today, the phrase is more likely to be seen as referring to a nation formed of many ethnic, racial, religious, and economic groups. In both senses, “E pluribus unum” captures significant aspects of what our country is and strives to be. It is difficult to imagine applying “E pluribus unum” to any other nation.

“In God we trust,” on the other hand, is rather non-specific. It could equally be applied—some might say it would be better applied—to Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Iran, Israel, or the Vatican. In fact, its Spanish equivalent, “En Dios Confiamos,” is actually the motto of Nicaragua, a country with which, I suspect, most Americans feel limited affinity.

“E pluribus unum” fairly characterizes both the nation’s political organization and its population. Significantly, there is no such thing as native American stock—even “native Americans” are not intrinsically American, since being American is not an ethnicity, but a state of mind. We become Americans by leaving our ethnicity behind and becoming something new—a new one. The American nation truly is—to borrow another phrase from the Great Seal—“Novus ordo seclorum,” a new order of the ages.

By contrast, “In God we trust” seems not at all true at the corporate level. We put our trust in our political system, in our military, in our market economy. Not only does our nation corporately not trust in God for its strength and preservation, but, in fact, the First Amendment would make such an explicit trust unacceptable. Ironically, the constitutional dodge of “ceremonial deism” drains the motto of the meaning its most enthusiastic proponents would like to invest in it.

“In God we trust” is perhaps easier to justify as indicating that the nation’s citizens, rather than the nation itself, put their trust in God. It is generally accepted that religious faith is more widespread in the U.S. than in most other Western nations. But, here again, there are problems. Although Americans overwhelmingly tell pollsters that they believe in God, not everyone does so, not everyone believes in the same God, and many who declare a belief in God show little evidence of actually trusting the God whose existence they so readily affirm.

However one interprets it, as a description either of the United States or of its citizens, “In God we trust” is, logically, simply not true.

If we are willing to accept acknowledged belief in a God as having “faith in God,” and if we are willing to ignore the fact that belief in God is not universal, one can make a case for “In God we trust.” But such a motto is more personal than corporate, and it fails to capture any fundamental or unique aspect of the American nation. Should not a national motto be about the nation, not about the personal beliefs of only some of the nation’s people?

The Fight for the Nation’s Soul

Admittedly, choosing a motto for the United States is not now a burning political issue. It is unlikely to become a topic of conversation in the 2012 presidential race. The apparent substantial consensus in the House of Representatives notwithstanding, however, “In God we trust” and “E pluribus unum” can be seen as representing very different views of the country whose partisans are vying for the nation’s soul.

In the minds of its advocates, “In God we trust” does not now—nor has it ever—referred to an abstract God of ceremonial deism. It refers instead to the Christian God, not to the Jewish God, not to the Muslim God, not even to the Mormon God or to the God of any other religion. The strongest proponents of “In God we trust” are the same folks who insist that the United States is (and must be) a “Christian” country, a country whose laws reflect “Christian”—which is to say their—values, which may not at all be the values embraced by more mainstream churches.

Those who insist that ours is a Christian country are not only historically ignorant but also misunderstand the whole American system. For them, politics is not the art of the possible, not a process of give-and-take among competing interests, but a winner-take-all contest of good versus evil. Alas, all too easily does “In God we trust” become “God’s will, as we understand it, must prevail over those of our fellow citizens.” “In God we trust” justifies banning abortion and gay marriage, limiting speech and immigration, teaching creation “science” and not evolution, and insisting on state sovereignty whenever the federal government gets something “wrong.” In practice, “In God we trust” is not about “we” at all, unless “we” refers to those adhering to a narrow, conservative brand of Christianity.

“E pluribus unum” suggests a different view of America. Those who resonate to this motto see the country as a fundamentally secular state, albeit one whose citizens are predominately believers. In this America, religious views are taken into account but are accorded no special status in our legislative halls. Strength is seen in diversity, and compromise for the common good is viewed as both possible and necessary. Advocates of this motto want us to discover our common humanity and interests as a community, not fight for sectarian supremacy that will mean freedom for some and oppression for others.

Unfortunately, in the political realm, trust in God does not have a good record of promoting justice, finding truth, establishing peace, or preserving creation. Neither does the history of the United States suggest that our nation has found the sure path to creating a free, just, and prosperous society. We have experienced triumphs and failures, but our political system has shown a remarkable ability to be self-correcting. We have been at our best when we have tried to act as one, even if some of us have had grave doubts about our chosen direction. Above all, Americans have always been of a practical bent, willing to sacrifice abstract doctrine to achieve practical success.

Such is the spirit of “E pluribus unum,” not an absolute principle, but a guiding light for our political undertakings. This motto represents community, inclusion, practicality, and a willingness to compromise. “In God we trust” represents a very different spirit—one of individuality, self-righteousness, and inflexibility. These are the forces now contending for supremacy in the Republic. Whatever our formal motto, I pray that it will be the spirit of “E pluribus unum” that guides our nation into the future.

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