Approved by the Continental Congress in 1782, the Great Seal of the United States is an impressive symbol. You can see it on the back of a dollar bill. Pay special attention to the ribbon in the eagle’s beak. It reads, “E Pluribus Unum” – Latin for “Out of Many, One.”
This noble phrase is especially apt for the United States, a nation of immigrants consisting of people of many backgrounds, nationalities and perspectives about religion.
For many years, “E Pluribus Unum” served as our nation’s unofficial motto. In 1956, Congress decided to create an official motto and bypassed the old phrase. They went instead with “In God We Trust.” (Remember, this was during the Cold War, when we were fighting “Godless Communism.”)
The use of “In God We Trust” on coins and paper money has occasionally been challenged in court by non-theistic groups. These legal challenges have not been successful, and there the matter rests.
Last month, the U.S. House of Representatives decided to reaffirm the use of “In God We Trust” as the national motto and encourage its display in public schools and other public buildings. The result was a foregone conclusion, akin to asking members of Congress if they like motherhood and baseball. The measure passed 396-9.
What was the point of all of this? The measure’s sponsor, U.S. Rep. Randy Forbes (R-Va.), an ally of the Religious Right, insisted that “In God We Trust” is under threat. But Forbes was unable to pinpoint any specific examples.
In fact, this vote was just shameless political posturing. It was another effort to reignite the “culture wars” in advance of the 2012 elections. It’s disgraceful that the very people who claim to treasure the motto so much aren’t above using it to score cheap political points.
A handful of members had the courage to vote “no.” U.S. Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.) recited a litany of problems facing the country and lamented that “we are debating whether or not to affirm and proliferate a motto that was adopted in 1956 and is under no threat of attack. In addition to diverting attention away from substantive issues, the resolution is unconstitutional.”
U.S. Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich.), the only Republican to vote “no,” issued an insightful statement: “The fear that unless ‘In God We Trust’ is displayed throughout the government, Americans will somehow lose their faith in God, is a dim view of the profound religious convictions many citizens have.”
In poll after poll, the American people have said they want congressional action on jobs and the economy. Instead, they are getting attempts to appease the Religious Right by fanning the flames of the culture war.
Maybe this tells us something about why Congress has an approval rating that currently hovers at about 9 percent.