Motto Mania: Pa. Lawmaker Proposes Religious Statement For Public Schools

'In God We Trust' was not codified as the nation's official motto until the 1950s when it was adopted during the height of the Red Scare as a blow to those godless commies in the Soviet Union.

A Pennsylvania state legislator is pushing a bill that would require public schools in the state to post “In God We Trust” signs – but he insists religion has nothing to do with it.

Rep. Rick Saccone (R-Allegheny/Washington) says he merely wants to honor the anniversary of the first appearance of “In God We Trust” on coins, which occurred 150 years ago.

“It’s displaying our national motto,” Saccone told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. “So they can have Harry Potter on the walls, zombies and witches on brooms but not the national motto? It would just be posted in the building somewhere so the kids know what the story is behind it. It's about teaching history.”

I’m not sure how many public schools have Harry Potter on the walls, but if they do it’s probably an effort to spur kids to read more. I’m also not sure how many schools post images of zombies and witches, and I don’t see why it’s relevant.

One of the most discouraging things about religious fundamentalists is their duplicity. “In God We Trust” is obviously a religious statement. It affirms that there is a god (one, not several), that the American people trust in this god and that there is something positive to be gained from that relationship.

All of these are theological statements. This is not about history – it’s about religion.

Janice Rael, vice president of Americans United’s Delaware Valley Chapter, said it well when she told a reporter, “The last time I checked, God was religious. The government should be neutral, and with this legislation the government is not neutral, the government is taking a position.”

If Pennsylvania legislators are so interested in history, perhaps they could tell the real story of this phrase. It was pushed by a band of ministers in Pennsylvania during the early years of the Civil War when things weren’t going so well for the North. These ministers became convinced that God was angry at the nation for not mentioning him in the Constitution and sough to placate the angry deity by adding a reference to him on the nation’s coinage.

The U.S. Secretary of the Treasury agreed, and the phrase first appeared on a three-cent piece in 1864. By then, the war was going much better for the North, and the ministers moved on to other projects. Among them was an effort to pass an amendment to the Constitution stating that the United States is officially a Christian nation that acknowledges “the Lord Jesus Christ as the Ruler among nations…in order to constitute a Christian government….” (They were less successful with that one.)

“In God We Trust” appeared on coins sporadically over the next several decades. President Theodore Roosevelt disliked the phrase and favored new coin designs that didn’t include it. But religious conservatives raised a stink, and Roosevelt caved. Still, the phrase was not codified as the nation's official motto until the 1950s when it was adopted during the height of the Red Scare as a blow to those godless commies in the Soviet Union. (At around the same time, “under God” was slipped into the Pledge of Allegiance.)

We could also go back to the founding period. Pennsylvania students could learn about the very first coin ever minted by the U.S. government. The so-called “fugio cent,” designed by no less than Benjamin Franklin, contained an image of a personified sun beaming down on a sundial. Underneath was the phrase “Mind Your Business.” The other side showed 13 interlocking circles, representing the 13 original colonies, accompanied by the words “We Are One.”

Do you notice anything about this coin? That’s right – there are no religious symbols or phrases on it.

That’s the real history. Instead of teaching that, Saccone and his allies propose posting the words “In God We Trust” in isolation on a public school wall. They point to the currency and say the motto has been upheld there. They should know that context matters. Indeed, it is everything. That’s why the U.S. Supreme Court and lower federal courts have ruled over and over again that public schools may not interfere in the religious lives of their charges.

This proposed legislation has already passed a House committee, but it’s not worth a plug nickel. Here’s hoping it advances no further.