Every U.S. coin and bill features the national motto, “In God We Trust.” It appeared on coins following the Coinage Act of April 22, 1864, and on all currency minted after 1956. First implemented to capitalize on religious sentiment as the Civil War waged and then made universal to play off the anti-communist hysteria of the Cold War, “In God We Trust” is a key example of U.S. civil religion: an ideology that has often cloaked abuses of power in the trappings of religious faith (Time).
In 1864, Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase proposed adding “In God We Trust” to two-cent coins to promote national unity in the midst of the Civil War (The Street). Though President Theodore Roosevelt objected to the phrase in 1907, judging it sacrilegious, he was overruled by Congress in the face of public dissent. But “In God We Trust” would replace “E. Pluribus Unum” (out of many, one) as the national motto and be required to appear on all U.S. currency thanks to federal legislation in 1955, as the Cold War escalated following the close of the Korean War two years prior.
“While the sentiment of trust in God is universal and timeless, these particular four words ‘In God We Trust’ are indigenous to our country,” said Florida Democrat Charles Bennett, who sponsored the bill. “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” (Politico).
• Support religious freedoms and the protection of public institutions like schools as secular, inclusive spaces.
• Recognize Christian privilege and take action for inclusion in workplaces and schools.
The “freedom” that Bennett wished to protect with divinely-branded currency didn’t apply to everyone. At the time, the beaches of his home state were sundown towns that banned Black, Latine, and Jewish people after dark (NBC Miami). The God that the United States is said to trust in isn’t just any God: He’s a white, Protestant, Christian god. That’s how white America was able to denounce the Civil Rights Movement as a communist, atheist conspiracy, despite key figures like Martin Luther King, Jr. being ordained reverends (NPR). In his 1963 “Segregation Now, Segregation Forever” speech, Alabama Governor George Wallace said that, since “we are all the handiwork of God,” “we warn those, of any group, who would follow the false god of communistic amalgamation that we will not surrender… our freedom of race and religion” (Black Past).
The divinity traditionally invoked in defense of the United States government and social structure belongs to the most reactionary and oppressive forms of religion. It’s what scholars call the “civil religion” of the United States: the idea that U.S. political institutions, practices, or ideals are sacred. Everyone who grows up in the United States is brought up in the U.S. civil religion from a young age.
“Americans are expected to hold their hands over their hearts when they recite the Pledge of Allegiance or stand for the national anthem. Young people are taught to regard the country’s founders almost as saints. The ‘self-evident’ truths listed in the Declaration of Independence and the key provisions of the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights have acquired the status of scripture in the U.S. consciousness” (NPR).
It can be even more explicit than that. The year after 1864’s Coinage Act, Constantino Brumidi painted the Apotheosis of Washington in the U.S. Capitol’s Rotunda. The fresco depicts George Washington, the first U.S. president and captor of hundreds of enslaved people, ascending to the heavens while flanked by Roman gods to become a god himself (Architect of the Capitol). On January 6, 2021, Capitol Police warned far-right protesters that they were entering a “sacred” space. Some agreed, with one protester leading a Christian prayer in the Senate chambers (NPR).
U.S. civil religion is problematic for a number of reasons. Though the God of the U.S. government is non-sectarian, he’s coded as Protestant, allowing for the normalization of Christian supremacy and political persecution of non-Christian faiths. The idea that the United States, or at least its political ideals, have always been sacred means that God was on the side of Indigenous genocide and slavery. Today, U.S. religious-tinged exceptionalism helps to justify its aggression and robbery on the world stage.
It looks like “In God We Trust” is on our currency for good. A 2003 poll found 90% of respondents in favor of it remaining, perhaps because U.S. residents enjoy thinking of their nation as uniquely sacred and divinely-inspired (The Street). But understanding the extent and harm of civil religion allows us to fight the abuses of American exceptionalism and religious discrimination. People of any or no faith should be able to unite around the idea that any god of the U.S. empire and exploitation is a false one.
• U.S. civil religion is the idea that U.S. institutions, ideals, and important leaders are sacred or divinely favored.
• Though nonsectarian, U.S. civil religion is based on a white Protestant Christian model.
• Civil religion has been used to justify U.S. abuses on the world stage and forms of oppression like segregation and antisemitism domestically.