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On This Day: “In God We Trust” Becomes Motto of the United States

July 30, 2011 06:00 AM
by findingDulcinea Staff
On July 30, 1956, President Eisenhower signed legislation establishing “In God We Trust” as the national motto, adopting a phrase derived from Francis Scott Key’s writings.

“In God We Trust” Becomes National Motto

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In 1955, during the Cold War, Rep. Charles E. Bennett of Florida sought to make a gesture distinguishing America, which he said was “founded in a spiritual atmosphere and with a firm trust in God,” from the anti-religious sentiment associated with communism.

He proposed putting the phrase “In God We Trust,” which began appearing on coins in 1864, on all paper and coin currency. “In these days when imperialistic and materialistic communism seeks to attack and destroy freedom, we should continually look for ways to strengthen the foundations of our freedom,” he declared on the House floor.

His bill quickly passed through the House and Senate, and was signed into law by President Dwight D. Eisenhower on July 11, 1955.

A year later, the same Congress was presented with a bill to make “In God We Trust” the national motto. The U.S. had never had a national motto, though “E pluribus unum,” meaning “out of many, one,” was considered the de facto motto.

Expressing its support of the bill, the House Judiciary Committee stated, “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.” It added that it found “In God We Trust” to be “a superior and more acceptable motto” than “E pluribus unum.”

Congress passed the bill and Eisenhower signed it into law on July 30, 1956, officially making “In God We Trust” the national motto of the United States.

In 2006, President George W. Bush issued a proclamation commemorating the 50th anniversary of the motto, declaring that it was a time to “reflect on these words that guide millions of Americans, recognize the blessings of the Creator, and offer our thanks for His great gift of liberty.”

Background: “In God We Trust” on U.S. Currency

The phrase “In God We Trust” is derived from a line in Francis Scott Key’s “The Star-Spangled Banner,” the 1814 poem that became the U.S. national anthem. He wrote, “Then conquer we must, when our cause it is just, And this be our motto: ‘In God is our trust!’”

During the Civil War, there existed an “increased religious sentiment,” leading to appeals that the U.S. “recognize the Deity on United States coins,” according to the Treasury Department. In a letter to Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase, the Rev. M.R. Watkinson of Pennsylvania wrote, “What if our Republic were not shattered beyond reconstruction? Would not the antiquaries of succeeding centuries rightly reason from our past that we were a heathen nation?”

On April 22, 1864, Congress passed an act calling for “In God We Trust” to be engraved on two-cent coins. The following year, a second act ordered the motto to be placed on a wide variety of coins. Since 1938, with the release of the Jefferson nickel, all coins have had the inscription.

Opinion & Analysis: Constitutionality of “In God We Trust”

The establishment of “In God We Trust” as a national motto and as a fixture on United States currency is a source of controversy. Critics say the motto and its appearance on currency are a violation of the First Amendment clause that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion” and of the “wall of separation between Church and State” described by Thomas Jefferson in an 1802 letter.

Stefan Ray Aronow challenged the appearance of "In God We Trust” on currency in a 1970 lawsuit. His claim was rejected by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

The court ruled, “It is quite obvious that the national motto and the slogan on coinage and currency ‘In God We Trust’ has nothing whatsoever to do with the establishment of religion. Its use is of a patriotic or ceremonial character and bears no true resemblance to a governmental sponsorship of a religious exercise.”
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