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A Matter of Mottos
by Lionel E. Deimel

A version of this essay appeared on my blog on November 13, 2011. I decided to revise it and put it here because what I had to say seems as relevant in 2016 as the did in 2011, and because my remarks are offered in the same spirit as those of my earlier essay on the Pledge of Allegiance. In a sense, “A Matter of Mottos” and “The Pledge of Allegiance Revisited” are companion pieces, treating issues of church and state that seldom receive much attention.

— LED, 4/23/2016

In November of 2011, the House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly to reaffirm “In God we trust” as the official motto of the United States. Of course, the motto was not about to expire, so the vote and the half-hour discussion that preceded it were a waste of time. Recently, however, President Obama had mistakenly identified “E pluribus unum” as the nation’s motto in a speech, and the Republicans saw an opportunity to embarrass the leader for whom they had such utter contempt.

That the president himself seems to have been confused about the nation’s motto suggests that it might be worthwhile to inquire into why there might be confusion and whether the nation’s official motto is well chosen. Actually, “In God we trust” and “E pluribus unum” seem to represent two views of America competing for ascendency.


“E pluribus unum,” usually translated “out of many, one,” is one of three Latin phrases on the Great Seal of the United States, which was adopted by Congress in 1782. (The other two are “Annuit cœptis”1 and “Novus ordo seclorum.”2) Though prominent on our currency and elsewhere for more than two centuries, the phrase, “E pluribus unum” was never officially designated the motto of the United States of America.

Great Seal of the United States “In God we trust” first appeared on U.S. coins in 1864, during the Civil War. This was done on the recommended of Lincoln’s Secretary of the Treasury, Salmon P. Chase. Presumably, the addition to U.S. coinage was intended to associate God more closely with the Union cause. In 1956, during the Cold War against “godless Communism,” “In God we trust” was declared by Congress to be the official national motto. The next year, it was added to paper currency. This was the same period during which the words “under God” were added to the Pledge of Allegiance, thereby distinguishing our country from our Cold War rival, the Soviet Union. (See “The Pledge of Allegiance Revisited” and “Out of Many, One.”)

In 2006, the Senate, celebrating the 50th anniversary of “In God we trust” having been declared our motto, passed a resolution reaffirming the choice. The 2011 action by the House of Representatives was, of course, simply celebrating the raw political power of the Republican Party and its Tea Party wing.

U.S. QuarterThat said, the House vote was not especially partisan. The resolution was carried by a 396–9 majority, with two members voting “present.” Even in what is supposed to be a secular state, seeming to vote against God is tough to do. A single Republican did so.

One might think that having a transparently religious motto would be a violation of the First Amendment’s prohibition of laws respecting “an establishment of religion,” but the Supreme Court has allowed the invocation of God in the public square as innocuous instances of “ceremonial deism,” a term coined by the late Yale Law School dean, Eugene Rostow. Judges are as reluctant to vote against God as are legislators.

A Tale of Two Mottos

In principle, a motto should say something important about its adopter. It can articulate a guiding principle, emphasize an important characteristic, or proclaim an aspiration. Selecting a motto for a nation is a particularly daunting task, as even harmonious and homogeneous populations are complex communities not easily or concisely characterized. Mottos are not essays, so the need for brevity limits possible options.

Curiously, neither “E pluribus unum” nor “In God we trust” alludes to such concepts as liberty, freedom, or democracy, any one of which might be considered an essential element of the American experiment.

Nevertheless, “E pluribus unum” would make a splendid motto for the United States. Its primary defect is that the phrase is in Latin, which is not seen as a particularly democratic language.3 Though terse, “E pluribus unum” manages to convey two distinct meanings. Originally, it referred to a nation formed of 13 separate colonies. Today, the phrase is more likely to be seen as referring to a nation formed of many ethnic, racial, religious, and other interest groups. In both senses, however, “E pluribus unum” captures significant aspects of what our country is and strives to be. It is difficult to imagine applying “E pluribus unum” to any other nation.

Thus, “E pluribus unum” fairly characterizes both the nation’s political organization and its population. Significantly, there is no such thing as native American stock—even “native Americans” are not intrinsically American, since being American is not an ethnicity, but a state of mind. We become Americans by leaving our ethnicity behind and becoming something new—a new one. The American nation truly is—to borrow another phrase from the Great Seal—“Novus ordo seclorum,” a new order of the ages.

“In God we trust,” on the other hand, is rather non-specific. It could equally be applied—some might say would be better applied—to Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Iran, Israel, or the Vatican. In fact, its Spanish equivalent, “En Dios Confiamos,” is actually the motto of Nicaragua, a coincidence many Americans might find disconcerting.

Moreover, “In God we trust” seems not at all true at the national level. Traditionally, we have placed our trust in our political system, in our military, and in our capitalist economy. Not only does our nation corporately not trust in God for its strength and preservation, but, in fact, the First Amendment would make such an explicit trust unacceptable. Ironically, the Supreme Court’s dodge of “ceremonial deism” drains the motto of its apparent commonsense meaning.

“In God we trust” seems more appropriate if we understand it as characterizing the citizenry, rather than the nation itself. It is generally accepted that religious faith is more widespread in the U.S. than in most other Western nations. But, here again, there are problems. Although Americans overwhelmingly tell pollsters that they believe in God, not everyone does so, not everyone believes in the same God, and many who declare a belief in God show little evidence of actually trusting the God whose existence they so readily affirm. In 2016, God seems less popular than formerly. Increasingly, Americans are willing to admit to being atheists.

However one interprets “In God we trust,” it is largely untrue. And in any list of characteristics that have made the nation successful for nearly two-and-a-half centuries, faith in God would seem rather farther down the list in importance than our ability to work together despite (or even because of) our great diversity.

The Fight for the Nation’s Soul

Admittedly, revisiting the motto of the United States is neither a burning political issue nor one destined to figure in the 2016 presidential race. The apparent consensus of the House of Representatives notwithstanding, however, “In God we trust” and “E pluribus unum” can be seen as representing very different views of the country whose partisans are vying for the nation’s soul.

In the minds of those fondest of it, “In God we trust” does not now, nor has it ever, referred to an abstract God of ceremonial deism. It refers instead to the Christian God and reflects their unshakable, if mistaken, belief that the United States of America was founded as, and continues to be, a “Christian” nation. For these people, “In God we trust” is a perfect motto for a country whose laws should reflect “Christian” values—their values—and should provide them special rights, such as the right to discriminate against people they hold in disrepute.4

Those who insist that ours is a Christian country are not only historically ignorant but also misunderstand the whole American system. For them, politics is not the art of the possible, not a process of give-and-take among competing interests, but a winner-take-all contest of good versus evil. Alas, all too easily does “In God we trust” become “God’s will, as we understand it, must prevail over those of our fellow citizens.” “In God we trust” justifies banning abortion and gay marriage, limiting speech and immigration, teaching creation “science” and not evolution, and insisting on state sovereignty whenever the federal government gets something “wrong.” In practice, “In God we trust” is not about “we” at all, unless “we” refers to those adhering to a narrow, conservative brand of Christianity.

Alas, many of the take-no-prisoners attitudes of the Christian right have infected conservatives generally, especially conservative Republicans. Ironically, those most angry about the ineffectualness of government are those most responsible for it.

“E pluribus unum” suggests a different view of America. Those who resonate to this motto see the country as a fundamentally secular state, albeit one whose citizens have predominately been  believers. In this America, religious views are taken into account but are accorded no special status.5 Strength is seen in diversity, and compromise for the common good is viewed as both possible and necessary. This motto invites us to discover our common humanity and interests as a community, not fight for sectarian supremacy that will mean freedom for some and oppression for others.

In truth, trust in God does not have a good record of promoting justice, finding truth, establishing peace, or preserving creation. Neither does the history of the United States suggest that our nation has found the sure path to creating a free, just, and prosperous society. We have experienced triumphs and failures, but our political system has shown a remarkable resiliency. We have been at our best when we have tried to act as one, even if some of us have had grave doubts about our chosen direction. Above all, Americans have always been of a practical bent, willing to sacrifice abstract doctrine to achieve practical success.

Such is the spirit of “E pluribus unum,” not an absolute principle, but a guiding light for our political undertakings. This motto represents community, inclusion, practicality, and a willingness to compromise. “In God we trust” represents a very different spirit—one of self-righteous individuality and inflexibility. By being the nation’s official motto, it encourages the worst of Christian chauvinism.

These are the ideas now contending for supremacy in the Republic. Whatever our formal motto, I pray that it will be the spirit of “E pluribus unum” that guides our nation into the future.

1Literally, the phrase translates to something like “has favored our undertakings.” The subject is only implied. “God” is often asserted to be the subject, but “Providence” is a more logical choice, as the Eye of Providence appears on the seal above the unfinished 13-course pyramid. Notice that—fortuitously or by design—both “Annuit cœptis” and “E pluribus unum” contain exactly 13 letters. (“In God we trust” contains only 12 letters.)

2This translates to “a new order of the ages.”

3I suspect that many citizens would consider any non-English motto too elitist for their taste. A Greek motto, alluding to an earlier democracy, might seem appropriate, though a motto in a foreign alphabet would seem even more pompous.

4Such attitudes are not held by all Christians, of course, and they are rare among mainline, as opposed to evangelical, Christians.

5The Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) and its state analogues have now privileged alleged religious rights over other freedoms. There were legitimate reasons for passing RFRA, but, with cases such as Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, “religious freedom” has gotten out of hand.

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