The Texas Legislature passed Senate Bill 797 more than a year ago, but school districts and citizens were concerned about the pandemic. No one paid much attention to SB 797’s requirement that all public schools in Texas—from freshman through college—display our national motto: In God We Trust.
But as students return to classroom learning this fall, at some schools they find prominent posters bearing the motto centered above a United States flag and a Texas flag.
Not everyone thinks that’s a good idea. “In God We Trust” has been inscribed on our currency since the Civil War, but not without controversy. In fact, in 1907, President Theodore Roosevelt strenuously opposed listing the motto on our currency, calling it “dangerously close to sacrilege.”
The display of the motto in every school in Texas generates more questions than answers. Atheists or agnostics might wonder who the “We” in “In God We Trust” refers to. The same goes for Muslims, Buddhists, Sikhs and Hindus, who will clearly understand that the “God” in “In God We Trust” is the Christian god. And even Jews, who worship more or less the same god, might object to the assertive and proselytizing character of the motto. It’s not something that Jews do.
Other citizens, religious and secular, wonder how the public display of religious sentiment in a public school does not violate the Constitution’s Establishment Clause, which prohibits the establishment – whatever that means – of any religion by the government.
The sponsor of the bill, State Senator Bryan Hughes, anticipated this objection. Hughes designed SB 797 to steer the state away from displaying the motto by requiring that any signage bearing the motto be donated by individuals or purchased with donations, thereby, by Hughes’ logic, removing liability from the state. ‘State.
So we can expect “In God We Trust” posters to proliferate in schools across Texas — and likely elsewhere in the country. And the SB 797 challenges are unlikely to survive in court.
Courts have generally held that currency does not violate the Establishment Clause. In 1984, the Supreme Court ruled that acts of “ceremonial deism” are permitted “primarily because they have lost through rote repetition any significant religious content”.
In other words, “In God We Trust” is constitutional precisely because its religious content has been emptied of it by overuse.
Here’s another problem with the motto: some Christians would say it’s not very Christian. They might note that Jesus did not like assertive religious morality, and he urged his followers not to be like the “hypocrites,” who like to pray in public so that they might “be seen by men.”
Trusting God takes place in the heart, they might say, and it is presumptuous to affirm trust on behalf of an entire nation, which, truth be told, has never really done such a good job in s relying on God, except ceremonially.
And SB 797 is both assertive and coercive. A draft version of the bill states that public institutions “may” display the motto in every building. The final version says “shall”.
The forced display of the national motto is good neither for the state nor for the religion. Despite its obvious legal dodge, any reasonable observer – and impressionable child – will understand that SB 797 represents an endorsement of one version of Christianity.
And Christianity is not well served by the forced rote repetition of questionable Christian sentiments.
“In God We Trust” was unanimously chosen by Congress as the national motto in 1956, largely as an affirmation of our righteousness over the godlessness of communism.
But I prefer the unofficial motto that “In God We Trust” has replaced. “E Pluribus Unum” means “among many, one”. Latin gives it a certain dignity, as well as an equal status compared to the many languages spoken in our country.
If we are looking for a national idea that we can all share, “In God We Trust” is, at best, fraught with difficulty. But “E Pluribus Unum” would be a beautiful message to display in every classroom: it is an inherently American aspiration that hopes to unite rather than divide.