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IN GOD WE TRUST—BUT FROM WHEN?

I SEEM to be finding religion and patriotism at this point of my life, prompted by a piece by Michael Kazin in The New York Times Book Review, May 17, 2015, about the book One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America.

In fact, it’s not that I swallowed everything offered in the book review or, indirectly, in the book reviewed. Rather, subsequent research of my own refined (and in some cases corrected) things I thought I knew.

What’s the history of “In God We Trust” on our currency? Or “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance? The review of One Nation Under God suggests “These now utterly commonplace markers of public piety were almost all created during the same decade—the 1950s.”

Well, kinda.

But God and the U.S. go back a lot longer than that. Somewhere along the way, I was taught that our Founding Fathers were a bunch of Deists (believing the laws of nature predominate, God being at most a spectator). Or, at least, they were Anti-clerical (okay with God, but not with His community organizers).

True, Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin were Anti-clerics and Common Sense author Thomas Paine was a Deist. But of the 55 delegates to the 1787 Constitutional Convention, 49 were Protestants and two were Roman Catholics. Among the Protestants were 28 followers of the Church of England, soon to become Episcopalians; eight Presbyterians; seven Congregationalists; two Dutch Reformed; two Lutherans; and two Methodists.

They sensed the importance of separating state from church. And no wonder: Only 138 years before, England was chopping off a royal head at least in part on religious grounds. On the other hand (a mixed metaphor?), no one objected in 1776 when Jefferson included “the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God” in the first sentence of The Declaration of Independence.

“In God We Trust” is in The Star-Spangled Banner, written during the War of 1812, though few of us know this because the phrase doesn’t appear until the fourth stanza. In 1861, the U.S. Treasury was petitioned by the Reverend M.R. Watkinson to recognize “Almighty God in some form in our coins,” the purpose being to “relieve us from the ignominy of heathenism.”

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Chase’s editorial work, December 9, 1863. Image from National Archives and Records Administration.

Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase first considered “In God is our Trust,” but scratched this out in favor of a more concise “We.” Good editorial material, he.

Congress got around to authorizing “In God We Trust,” thrice, in 1864 (allowing it on one-cent and two-cent pieces), 1865 (allowing it on all gold and silver coins) and again in 1873 (apparently just emphasizing the point). “In God We Trust” was on-again off-again for years, no doubt much to numismatists’ delight.

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Kennedy half-dollar. Image from the U.S. Mint.

Since 1938, all U.S. coins carry “In God We Trust.” In 1956, countering Soviet Union state atheism, the U.S. Congress declared “In God We Trust” the country’s national motto and authorized its placement on paper money. Congress, apparently with little else to do, has reaffirmed this twice, in 2006 and 2011.

A dissenting view: President Theodore Roosevelt considered it a sacrilege to have God’s name on filthy lucre.

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First graders of Japanese ancestry pledge allegiance to the American flag in April 1942. Image by Dorthea Lange.

The U.S. Pledge of Allegiance and its “under God” have interesting history as well. The pledge was composed in 1892 by Francis Bellamy (a Christian socialist minister; cousin of Edward Bellamy, socialist and author of Looking Backward, 2000 – 1887, a utopian novel written in 1888). Originally it read, “I pledge allegiance to my Flag and the republic for which it stands, one nation indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”

In a Lincoln’s Birthday oration in 1948, Louis Albert Bowman, a member of the Sons of the American Revolution, added “under God.” In 1954, during the same Cold War enthusiasm that put “In God We Trust” on U.S. paper money, “one nation, under God, indivisible…” became official.

Bowman’s choice of Lincoln’s Birthday was most appropriate. In Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, November 19, 1863, he was quoted by reporters as saying, “…we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom….”

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The only known photos showing Lincoln on the day of his address at Gettysburg, November 19, 1863.

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Folklore has it that Lincoln scrawled his notes for the speech on the back of an envelope, gone forever. Five existing manuscripts were written, and updated, by Lincoln only later. However, two of the five omit “under God.”

Some say Abe ad libbed “under God.” Others, who question 1860s usage of the phrase, doubt he said it at all. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2015

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