In God We Trust: A Brief History
By Charles Morgan and Hubert Walker …….
We pay attention to the news, so it follows that we pay attention to politics. After all, being involved is one of the original tenants of democracy[i]. When the news (especially politics in the news) touches on numismatics, it piques in us a strong, stubborn, contrary curiosity that won’t go away until we do the research and figure out just what part of it they got wrong. It’s too bad libraries don’t give out gold cards.
So on that note…
Mitt Romney took to the stump in our home state of Virginia on Saturday, September 8th, in an effort to claim its 13 electoral votes come November. Virginia, which went to President Barack Obama in 2008, is again considered a battleground state. In his remarks to a friendly Virginia Beach crowd, he accused the incumbent President and the Democratic party of wanting to, among other things, “take God off our coins”.[ii]
It’s not much of stretch to say that President Obama’s personal faith has played a key role in the attacks of his political adversaries on the right. America, due to its persistent yet forever changing multiethnicity, has long felt tension when homogeneous norms appear to be threatened. With Mr. Obama, a narrative about his otherness has been spun since the days of the 2008 campaign. Despite every appearance that he is a Christian, there are those who will never be satisfied and will continue to purport otherwise.
This would hardly be a concern to the rest of us, were it not that the Republican party currently relies on a coalition of activists whose priorities include the infusion of religious principles into American civic life. Article VI, paragraph 3 of the United States Constitution says that “the Senators and Representatives… and the Members of the several State Legislatures, and all executive and judicial Officers, shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation, to support this Constitution, but no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States”.
Likewise, the First Amendment includes both the Establishment Clause and the Free Exercise Clause, which together state that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof”.
The Framers included these clauses in our governing document because they feared the religiously-motivated division and conflict, to say nothing of violence, that had occurred in Europe. While it’s true that many colonists from Europe came to North America seeking the freedom to practice their religions and create local religious governments, the founders of the United States sought to do more, and understood that to unify thirteen colonies, with untold hundreds of different factions and communities, they would have to keep certain passionate issues out of the sphere of the fledgling government. One such issue, much to the Framers’ discredit and much to the chagrin of our nation to this very day, was slavery.
Much more wisely, the Founding Fathers separated Church and State.
Mr. Romney’s infusion of the national coinage into his campaign is not a response to any proposed policy on the part of the Obama administration or Congressional Democrats, but is instead an effort to glad-hand one faction of his political base by claiming that their party supports God while the other party does not. This is the very thing that the Founders tried to avoid.
But what exactly are the rules concerning coins and religion? Is it as clear-cut as we believe? What’s the history behind the motto? Why doesn’t everybody see the inspirational side of it? Here’s what we found out.
IN GOD WE TRUST AND THE TWO CENT PIECE
It is well-known in numismatic circles that the first Federal coin to bear the inscription IN GOD WE TRUST was the 1864 two cent piece. The motto was created at the behest of Republican (formerly of the Free Soil party) Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase, who in turn was responding to a letter dated November 13, 1861 by the Reverend M. R. Watkinson, out of Pennsylvania, who recommended that God be recognized on our coins. It said:
You are probably a Christian. 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? What I propose is that instead of the goddess of liberty we shall have next inside the 13 stars a ring inscribed with the words PERPETUAL UNION; within the ring the all seeing eye, crowned with a halo; beneath this eye the American flag, bearing in its field stars equal to the number of the States united; in the folds of the bars the words GOD, LIBERTY,LAW.[iii]
Chase agreed in part, and ordered the Director of the Mint, James Pollock, to develop and implement a new motto that included God. From 1861 to 1864, Mint engravers experimented with several phrases before finally deciding on IN GOD WE TRUST – a version of which first appeared in Francis Scott Key‘s “The Star-Spangled Banner“ in 1814. The Coinage Act of 1864 did not mandate the motto[iv]; the motto was the initiative of Secy. Chase.
However, Congress liked the idea and expanded the use of the motto by passing an Act on March 3, 1865 that authorized, but did not demand, the use of IN GOD WE TRUST on “gold, silver and other coins”[v]. At this point, the 72-year-long secularism of American money had come to an end.
A PRESIDENT WHO DID NOT APPROVE THIS MESSAGE
The last U.S. President to actively seek the removal of IN GOD WE TRUST from our national coinage was Republican President Theodore Roosevelt. Roosevelt did not approve of using God’s name on coinage and instructed Augustus Saint-Gaudens to not include the motto in his gold eagle and double eagle designs.
Congress rebuffed the popular progressive President, passing an Act on May 18, 1908, requiring the motto to appear on all silver and gold coins starting in 1909. It was added to Victor David Brenner’s cent design shortly before that coin went to press. The last holdout was the nickel, which saw a design change in 1913 that omitted the inscription, before adopting it in 1938 when a design featuring Thomas Jefferson was introduced (talk about irony).
Roosevelt was not the only U.S. President that wasn’t particularly religious. According to historian Franklin Steiner, author of The Religious Beliefs of Our Presidents: From Washington to FDR, at least ten of the forty-three men who’ve held the office of Chief Executive have been either a-religious or non-practicing[vi]. His list includes: Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, Tyler, Taylor, Van Buren, Arthur, and Lincoln. Of these men, only Arthur and Lincoln lived to see IN GOD WE TRUST circulate on U.S. coins.
THE FURTHER EMBRACE OF RELIGIOUS MOTTOS IN PUBLIC LIFE IN THE 1950S
As we noted in our article about the commemorative half dollar honoring African-American educators Booker T. Washington and George Washington Carver, American politicians were quick to adopt new strategies in order to defend the United States against the perceived communist threat. As communism was an atheistic religion, Americans saw religiosity as part of a good vs. evil binary.
This led to the adoption of religious language in a number of governmental and civic institutions, including the Pledge of Allegiance, the POW Code of Conduct, and the establishment of IN GOD WE TRUST as a national motto. On July 11, 1955, Congress passed a law requiring IN GOD WE TRUST to appear on ALL currency, thus completing the circle. The United States may not have sanctioned one particular religion, but it had established God as the de facto power that oversaw all manner of public life.
There have been a number of court cases challenging the constitutionality of the use of IN GOD WE TRUST as a national motto. So far, the courts have found that the expression, because it has become rote, lacks any religious meaning, and is instead “patriotic or ceremonial“ (Aronow v. United States)[vii]. This of course runs counter to experience when you consider things like the rally mentioned in the introduction. If IN GOD WE TRUST were not a religious sentiment, why then would a religious faction within a major party “mobilize the base” by fabricating a story that its opposition is determined to remove it?
THE GODLESS DOLLAR
The Mint’s artistic decision to de-clutter the Presidential dollar coins by moving IN GOD WE TRUST to the rim of the coin was the cause of great embarrassment when the media, driven by internet postings and chain emails, began to report that IN GOD WE TRUST was actually omitted from the new dollar coins.
Internet urban legend database Snopes.com posted a chain email that cries foul over the missing inscription. The email contains the factually inaccurate statement that one of the Presidents featured on the coins was responsible for the inscription being on our coins in the first place. The perceived attack on America’s religiosity moved some to boycott the coins (not that the Presidential dollar needed any help not circulating).
However, and also according to the site, the hysteria did result in the discovery of specimens of both the George Washington and John Adams coins with the motto missing from the rim. These so-called “Godless Dollars” were the result of mint errors, and not government policy.
Nevertheless, the meme reached the halls of Congress, where legislators amended the specifications of the Presidential dollar legislation by passing a rider in the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2008. The rider ordered the Mint to move the inscription off of the rim and place it on either the obverse or reverse of the coins.
THE PATH FORWARD?
If religious tests are going to be the basis by which we judge a person’s fitness to hold elected office and serve the public good, then it’s no wonder why our Founders felt so strongly against the establishment of a national religion. It should also come as no surprise that they never intended our coinage to carry religious messages (we found no documentation saying otherwise).
Having grown up with IN GOD WE TRUST, we’ve never thought much about it, so in a way the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals has a point. But what was really happening on our part was simply the unquestioned acceptance of an imagined homogeny. Now, with the 2008 election of Barack Obama standing as undeniable proof of long-term demographic change at work, we see factions that formerly enjoyed and leveraged their majority to institutionalize their religious views feeling threatened by groups of Americans who practice other faiths and belong to different cultures. The result so far has been histrionics and a race to pass bills that check future attempts by minority groups from somehow forcing their religious laws on everyone else. Take, for instance, efforts to ban the implementation of Sharia Law in states like Oklahoma and Tennessee.
Given that we currently have a two-party duopoly on government, with one party asserting its corner on all things religious, now would be a good time to remind ourselves of why our founders objected to such things. However well-intentioned the motto is, segments of our country now seek to politicize God for short-term, worldly gain. Lost in the tangle of national mottos and religion are two other mottos, longer in service and just as worthy: LIBERTY and E PLURIBUS UNUM.
Lost also might be the message of a certain Nazarene.
FLIP OF A COIN:
Speaking of Religion: At the height of the depression, the Roosevelt administration funded a settlement in Alaska, and offered settlers from Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota incentives to move to the great northern state and farm tracts of land allocated by the Department of the Interior. The program was called the Matanuska Valley Project. In 1935, several denominations of tokens were produced for the settlers to trade for supplies at the company store. Officially, these were Alaska Rural Rehabilitation Corporation tokens. Unofficially, they were referred to as Bingles, which is a reference to the Reverend Bert J. Bingle, a fellow settler and something of a father figure.
The dot you see on the left of a PCGS label when you hold the coin holder up to light? That’s where the label’s adhesive is located.
A variety you won’t see anymore: repunched mint marks (RPMs). Now that United States coins are made using a digital process, mintmarks are applied electronically and then hubbed as part of the coin’s main design. This means that we won’t be seeing any new instances of non-aligned mint mark punches.
[i] Thucydides. “Pericles’ Funeral Oration”, History of the Peloponnesian War (2.40). Trans. Rex Warner. London: Penguin Books, 1972. 147. Print.
[ii] Kapur, Sahil. http://livewire.talkingpointsmemo.com/entry/romney-implies-obama-will-remove-god-from-coins?ref=fpb. Web. 10 Sept. 2012.
[iii] http://www.treasury.gov/about/education/Pages/in-god-we-trust.aspx.Web. 11 Sept. 2012.
[iv] http://memory.loc.gov/cgi-bin/ampage?collId=llsl&fileName=013/llsl013.db&recNum=83. Web. 11 Sept. 2012.
[v] http://memory.loc.gov/cgi-bin/ampage?collId=llsl&fileName=013/llsl013.db&recNum=547. Web. 11 Sept. 2012.
Steiner, Franklin. The Religious Beliefs of Our Presidents: From Washington to FDR. Prometheus Books, 1995. Print.
[vi] http://www.infidels.org/library/historical/franklin_steiner/presidents.html. Web. 11 Sept. 2012.
[vii] Aronow v. United States. 432 F. 2d 242. United States Court of Appeals, Ninth Circuit. 1970. http://openjurist.org/432/f2d/242/aronow-v-united-states. Web. 11 Sept. 2012.