The National Motto, “In God We Trust,” poses a bit of a problem for the “endorsement test,” the most-widely used test for the constitutionality of state-sponsored religious expression. Under the endorsement test, government cannot communicate a message that suggests either approval or disapproval of religion, even religion in general. Yet the words “In God We Trust” appear on American currency, and have since the Civil War. Some excuse the motto as a historical remnant or an example of merely “ceremonial deism,” and it seems unthinkable that the Court would ever order its removal; but the tension with the endorsement test remains.
Justin Latterell (Emory) has published an interesting-looking historical piece, In God We Trust: Abraham Lincoln and America’s Deathbed Repentance, that focuses on Abraham Lincoln’s role in establishing the motto. The abstract is below. – MLM
This article maps several key moments in the evolution of religious symbolism and language on U.S. currency, focusing largely on Abraham Lincoln’s overlooked role in signing the motto ‘In God We Trust’ into law. Interpreting the motto through the lens of Lincoln’s “Second Inaugural Address” — which he delivered just one day after Congress passed the first statute allowing ‘In God We Trust’ to be stamped on U.S. coins — offers a counter-intuitive interpretation of the motto that functions as a deep, ironic, and historically significant critique of religious nationalism.
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President Lincoln also played a role, posthumously, in the addition of the words “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance. I wrote a post about this on Huffington Post back in May. Here is a part:
“There used to be a tradition, adhered to by some presidents, of honoring Abraham Lincoln’s birthday by sitting in Lincoln’s pew at New York Avenue Presbyterian Church on the Sunday nearest February 12. On February 7, 1954, President Eisenhower was in that pew and listened to a sermon by George MacPherson Docherty in which Docherty repeated the — possibly apocryphal — story that Lincoln added the words “under God” to the Gettysburg Address to show that America’s might lay not in military power, but in its spirit and higher purpose and that these same words should therefore be added to the Pledge of Allegiance. Eisenhower agreed and apparently arranged for a bill to be introduced to that effect the very next day.
Secularists and others devoted to the separation of church and state have always misinterpreted the addition of the words ‘under God’. Those words probably did not indicate a supernatural being for Lincoln. And Docherty was not proposing the change in wording to settle a theological issue about the existence of God. Docherty meant to suggest that America stands, or at least tries to stand, for moral principles in the world. That is how Lincoln always used religious imagery.”