E Pluribu Unum

I have written a lot about the First Amendment to our Constitution over the years. About its four freedoms that we hold so dear to our hearts; the freedom of and from religion, the freedom of speech, the freedom of the press and the freedom to assemble. It is the freedom of and from religion that sees the most light.

Recently, states, including South Dakota, Arkansas, Florida, and Louisianna, have approved laws requiring “In God We Trust” to be displayed in all public schools, believing that witnessing the national motto will somehow reduce the ever-increasing number of school shooting we have experienced since Columbine in 1999.

The same holds true for a growing number of police and sheriff departments adding “In God We Trust” to their vehicles hoping to prevent shootings and other violence in the streets of their fair cities.

The unfortunate side of this story is that the courts have ruled that “In God We Trust” is not a religious statement, but secular. Given the history of the phrase, originally suggested in November 1861 by a minister to the United States Secretary of the Treasury and later was introduced in 1956 as a form of propaganda against the godless commies as our new national motto, that appears to be wrong. That the only god it seems to suggest is (or are, depending on which church one belongs to) the Christian god(s).

A bit of history…

After the Revolution, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin and John Adams were tasked with designing the new nation’s national seal. It is here where we find the de facto motto of “E Pluribus Unum,” “Out of Many, One.” Why de facto? Though the seal was approved, E Pluribus Unum was not codified as the national motto by either the Continental Congress or the Congress of the new United States.

We see the first mention of God was in 1782 when the Latin “Annuit Cœptis,” “Providence Favors Our Undertakings,” was added to the Great Seal. A looser translation of “Annuit” is “He” or “God.”

During the Civil War Rev. M. R. Watkinson, Minister of the Gospel from Ridleyville, Pennsylvania, suggested to the then Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase that “GOD, LIBERTY, LAW” be added to the coinage of the United States. “In God We Trust” was eventually selected from a number of suggestions by the Secretary and inscribed of a few denominations of coins.

President Theodore Roosevelt did not like the idea of having “God” so prominently displayed on our money and order it removed believing it to be sacrilegious.

In 1954, during the 84th Congress and in the midst of the Cold War with the Soviet Union, Congress decided that the United States needed to somehow distinguish itself from the godless communists. The Eisenhower administration took up the cause, codifying “In God We Trust” as our official national motto under Public Law 84-140. It was re-inscribed on our money starting in 1964.

When speaking to the general public about the national motto and its meaning, almost all believe that the god being praised is the Christian God(s).

There are a number of groups and organizations that advocate the return of E Pluribus Unum as our national motto, though it was never ratified, to begin with. The basis of such a position is the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause, that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof;”

To rewrite P.L. 84-140, to ratify E Pluribus Unum as the national motto, would take a Herculean effort to move past the conservative Christian and Christian nationalist organizations supported by the Republican members of Congress; something I do not see happening in the near future. I believe it will see th same roadblocks as the elimination of Article II, Section 1 of the Constitution which established the Electoral College.

Do I want to see “In God We Trust” removed from public entities, including police and sheriff’s cars? You bet I do. But as long as “In God We Trust” remains a “secular” document per the courts, it will be impossible to change the law and comply with the Constitution.

About David Rosman

David is the winner of the Missouri Press Foundation's "Best Columnist" in 2013 (First Place) and 2014 (Second Place), the 2016 Harold Riback Award for excellence in writing, and the winner of the 2007 Interactive Media Award for excellence in editing.
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