Earlier this week, the United States House of Representatives passed a resolution affirming "In God We Trust" as the national motto of the country.
As far as I gather, this is not a change in official government policy. The phrase has been the national motto since the 1950s and was first added to some U.S. currency after the Civil War. It’s unclear what this resolution does beyond reaffirm a symbolic move that was already made decades ago.
The historical arguments for using the phrase are interesting and give us a glimpse into how people understood our religious and national identity in the past. When the phrase was first added to coins in the 19th century, according to legend, a pastor proposed it because he was concerned about the country's legacy. He imagined archeologists of the future unearthing coins and other artifacts from the United States and not being able to see any religious devotion. He proposed the motto, on coins in particular, to create a lasting object that would testify to the country's beliefs.
It's strange to imagine such an apocalyptic view of America, though I expect the destruction wrought by the Civil War influenced his perspective. When I drive around my southern town with its collection of steeples, I don't think the devotion of some Americans risks being lost to history now, but the question of how we will be remembered might guide our thoughts about questions symbolic and practical today.
In the 1950s, when the phrase was named the official motto, it was also added to some stamps and required to be included on all currency. At that time, it was a method of distinguishing Americans from "godless communists." Representatives arguing for the measure suggested that no communist would be willing to trade money or mail an envelope with that expression of religious devotion. Therefore, our motto separated us from our enemy and also potentially served to alienate them and reveal their true colors.
It's my suspicion that this resolution was proposed and put forward for a vote this year primarily as an attempt to pander to voters. It allows representatives, especially the Republicans who mostly voted for it, to campaign on their support for American civil religion and keeping God's name in our buildings, money, etc. Some representatives are claiming it was necessary to affirm our commitment to the motto or to clear up confusion.
I'm troubled by the promotion of the motto, though, for a number of reasons. It smacks of the kind of empty piety that Old Testament prophets railed against. In Amos 5, for instance, God is really angry about displays of piety while people are mistreating the poor. Instead of talking about how much our country allegedly trusts in God, why don't we demonstrate it via legal and communal efforts that show the fruit of the Spirit? If we truly trusted in God, would we need to scrawl our piety on state buildings?
I think as Christians we should be very suspicious of efforts by politicians to use our beliefs or their own to score easy points. My trust in God isn't something I want to be put up to a vote at all. It's something I want to work harder to demonstrate. While this is hard enough to manage as an individual, as a nation it seems even more treacherous.
Even the Israelites, God's chosen people, screwed up regularly. We shouldn't be surprised when we fail as well, but perhaps we should be careful about praying on street corners and ignoring the downtrodden among us.
(Photo courtesy of iStockphoto.)