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.