by Tammy Tillotson
February 1, 2002
Praise the Pow’r that hath made and preserved us a nation!
Then conquer we must when our cause it is just,
And this be our motto – “In God is our trust.”
—-Francis Scott Key, The Star Spangled Banner
The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that posting isolated religious texts and symbols in any public building is unconstitutional. The government and public schools primarily choose to remain neutral on the issue of religion, because advocating one specific religion in comparison to another would violate every American’s Constitutional right to freedom of religion.
Since freedom of religion also includes freedom not to affiliate with a dominant religion, it is also considered unconstitutional to engrave the Ten Commandments on the walls of governmental buildings or public schools, despite the United States’ rich historical roots of Christianity. Yet, on a daily basis the government contradicts its stance on freedom of religion through simple common cents. This contradiction is in no way blasphemous, as it is merely a product of human reality and American heritage.
A Nation Under God
In a nation united from the beginning under God, it is impossible to separate that union from God. However, it is possible to understand and analyze the context of how the two initially were intertwined. This can be accomplished through considering the historical role of religion as a construct that governs the attitudes of people, and by examining and comparing historical documents to present day arguments concerning the separation of religion and government in society. One of the best ways to apply these concepts is by also considering how they are exemplified today in the use of ceremonial characters specifically, coins and currency.
Psychology of Religion
The psychology of religion is not necessarily concerned with how a person classifies or categorizes his or her religious association in reference to a particular denomination. Regardless of whether an individual regards himself as Buddhist, Christian, Islamic, Atheist, Agnostic, or a free thinker, all these religions have several common aspects.
All religions are empirically described and analyzed, as a person’s belief system is dependent on experiences, observation, and ideas of both the known and the unknown. For this reason, it is impossible for an individual’s attitudes, beliefs, and ideas about religion to exist in isolation from the individual’s environment.
Since an individual’s beliefs cannot be isolated from the individual’s environment, it is also expected and natural for manifestations and representations of these attitudes to be conveyed in social context. Political responsibilities and government are important social contexts so one would expect to find evidence of beliefs in the historical context of a nation, a tribe, or any other conglomeration of humans. Religion is not so much the search for meaning to understand a divine entity or God, as much as it is the idea that human existence depends on some form of transcendence of empirical evidence. This empirical evidence creates another form of divine revelation of its own.
An important aspect of human life and well being directly involves being able to understand and cope with conflict in a healthy manner. Religion offers healthy defense mechanisms, which allow individuals to overcome anxieties, fears, and other emotional states encountered within the conflicting nature of environments. An awareness of these religious influences within a group of people, or in a nation, is important to better understand that even very primitive states of religion exist within human environments. Archetypes, texts, ceremonies, taboos, prejudices, objects, and titles exploit some form of historical dogma, in the sense that at some point, throughout the occurrence of time, some entity of authority determined them to be uniquely important. As a result, empirical evidence from that time has often transcended into present culture.
The Historical Role of Religion in Government
Religion played a vital part in the lives of the individuals responsible for the formation of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States of America. There is reference to “nature’s God” in the Preamble of the Declaration of Independence, and though there may be no recorded reference to “God” within the Constitution itself, it would be a fallacy to suggest that either document was founded void of religious connotation.
Both documents can largely be considered primitive religious texts, as they both are recorded accounts of empirical descriptions. The Declaration of Independence empirically described and analyzed one system of beliefs, and accorded that system as no longer meeting the needs of a specific group of people. After one system of beliefs is discarded, it is necessary for humans to reconstruct another system of beliefs so chaos does not ensue. The Constitution resulted as a second document based on empirical ideas, experiences, and observations. The document is based on the authoritative opinions of a select group of individuals and their beliefs, and the purpose of its creation was to ensure its transcendence to future generations – in effect, a religious effort.
It is worth noting that the fifty-five delegates who attended the Constitutional Convention were regarded as an elite group of educated men who had already displayed their leadership, dedication, and ability to provide outstanding service to their country. They were obviously an educated group with vast differences of opinions, as only 39 signed the document. It is somewhat interesting and perplexing why none of the most conspicuous radical leaders in the Revolution were present at this event, despite their own leadership, education, and abilities.
Another interesting religious context concerning the Constitutional Convention, occurred on June 28, 1787, when Benjamin Franklin requested that the group begin each session with prayer. This request for prayer has been accorded as an important contradiction in deciding the exact role religion played in the actual writing of the document, as it is a suggestion of religious association.
Present Day Arguments
Popular culture today is still largely in disagreement over the separation of religion and government, despite the fact that the two are historically intertwined. This seems to occur naturally as empirical evidence transcends into different time periods, which result in conflicts between past ideas and current experiences, innovations, knowledge, and technology. Transcended empirical meaning struggles to continue to transcend, and it can be altered dramatically or argued vehemently by those individuals who believe the empirical meaning should remain in its original historical context. Trying to separate religion from government is one of these inevitable empirical struggles.
Some individuals argue that displaying the Ten Commandments would act as a deterrent to unethical behavior, while simultaneously strengthening the resolve of individuals to be responsible and moral.
The reverse of that perspective is that it can be argued that the government daily violates several Ten Commandments, due to the evolution and the nature of empirical systems within society. The government might not perceive of this with conscious intent and its occurrence is in no way malicious or harmful to individuals within the society. While this notion may seem a bit preposterous, it is actually another contradiction amid a vast array of other contradictions that largely depends on perspective. The empirical qualities of historical manifestations begin to contradict themselves more as a direct result of empirical evolutions encountering both individuals that desire to support the historical context and individuals that are in disagreement.
So Help Me God
An important example of this is the ceremonial phrase “So help me God.”
Article II of the Constitution contains a thirty-five word Oath of the President. George Washington added the four words “So help me God” at the end of his oath when he was inaugurated as the first President of the United States. Every successive President has followed suit by adding the famous empirical phrase as an honorable tribute.
Article VI of the Constitution addresses the topic that federal and state employees are bound by oath to support the Constitution, “but no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.”
Some individuals believe that the inclusion of “So help me God” at inauguration is implicative of religious beliefs, and if the United States does not advocate one religion in preference to another, this phrase should be omitted. The empirical context of the phrase has transcended into a mixture of confrontation in popular culture, because it could imply religious affiliation despite its historical ceremonial significance.
Yet, consider this: If no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office, and the Constitution guarantees that assurance; what person would desire to be the first President NOT to add “So help me God” at the end of the oath?
Perhaps, the omission of the four words at a presidential inauguration would serve as a test of the most philosophical and renowned kind of empiricism. Then again, politicians and criminals in courtrooms swear to tell the whole truth so help them God also.
In consulting another important religious text, The Holy Bible Revised Standard Version, the following reference can be found. The Book of James 5:12 reads: “But above all, my brethren, do not swear, either by heaven or by earth or with any other oath, but let your yes be yes and your no be no, that you may not fall under condemnation.”
If a person allows his yes to mean yes and his no to mean no, it would seem, in regards to James, that an oath of any sort sworn either by heaven or by earth would fall under condemnation. If a man is true to his word, why is it even remotely necessary to swear affirmation to any manmade, earth-bound, political manifestation? Is it fitting that Washington’s four little words have in some ways certainly fallen under condemnation? In some ways, yes, as the inclusion of the phrase at an openly public event invites and invokes critique and criticism just as it serves as an example for generations to come.
“So help me God” raises contradictions in regards to determining whether the reference to God in the phrase is merely ceremonial or an endorsement of religion. Has it empirically evolved so far from its original context that it no longer exists with significance or value?
In God We Trust
To answer concerns of value and significance, consider a second complex example. Dissenting views have surfaced concerning the inclusion of the phrase “In God We Trust” on all U.S. money.
“In God We Trust” is the United States national motto, and it is required to appear on all U.S. coins and currency as part of the design. This was adopted in 1957 and is denoted in two statutes 31 U.S.C. 5112(d) and 5114(b). Consistently, the U.S. Supreme Court has upheld these statutes.
Courts have ruled that a reasonable person aware of the purpose, context, and history of the phrase would not consider the phrase to be an endorsement of religion. The motto is thought to have nothing to do with religion as an establishment, yet it is merely a patriotic or ceremonial character. (This same view can also be held in relation to the phrase “So help me God.”)
First, consider that the purpose of U.S. coins and currency is to function as a circulating medium of exchange within the context of U.S. boundaries. Second, consider the history of the phrase. Records of the Treasury Department suggest that the first appeal to include some recognition of the deity on the coins was a letter addressed to the Secretary of the Treasury, Salmon P. Chase, from the Rev. M. R. Watkinson, Minister of the Gospel, Ridleyville, Pennsylvania, dated November 13, 1861.
In the letter, Rev. Watkinson states:
“One fact touching our currency has hitherto been seriously overlooked. I mean the recognition of the Almighty God in some form in our coins. You are probably a Christian…”
A week later, on November 20, 1861, Secretary of the Treasury, Salmon P. Chase, addressed a letter to James Pollock, the Director of the Mint at Philadelphia which states:
“Dear Sir: No nation can be strong except in the strength of God, or safe except in His defense. The trust of our people in God should be declared on our national coins.”
Two years later in December of 1863 Salmon P. Chase approved of motto suggestions from the Mint, yet he ultimately determined that the phrase should read “In God We Trust.”
Considering the history of the phrase, how precisely do the courts define “a reasonable person?”
It is reasonable to assume that a Christian Minister of the Gospel believed some reference to his concept of “God” should be on the coins. A second reasonable Christian in a position of authority to address the issue did so, while a third, somewhat neutral party, obviously wouldn’t argue what a person in a superior position instructed him to do.
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof, yet Congress simultaneously reserves the right to circumnavigate the rule. When the U.S. Mint is concerned, Congress is the supreme authority of the nation as the ability to coin money is one of their recorded Constitution rights. The July 11, 1862 Act of Congress that outlines the Secretary of the Treasury as being responsible for choosing the images on currency and coins seems comfortably cushioned in between defining reasonable persons also.
It is reasonable that Article I Section 10 of the Constitution says no state government shall coin money, yet simultaneously all currency is paid for by tax payer dollars. It is also reasonable that Congress believes portraits of Presidents should be on money, because Presidents have a more permanent familiarity in the minds of the public. Congress and the Presidents have sworn the same oath to support the same Constitution so it is not surprising that they would continue to be supportive of each other in neighboring arenas. In short, they have the authority to determine to put whatever they want on coins and currency, because they were educated enough to reserve that right for themselves.
E Pluribus Unum
For another example, consider the roots of the motto “E Pluribus Unum”, which can also be found on coins. Gentleman’s Magazine in London that was published from 1731-1922 also carried this same motto on the title page of its annual volumes. Educated individuals in the American colonies read the magazine and would have been familiar with the inscription.
If one motto was coined from a magazine, how reasonable is it to conclude that another motto has absolutely nothing to do with the religious beliefs of a certain Minister of the Gospel?
For a government that claims it does not advocate one religion over another, that seems to be quite the improbable impossibility. The prolific inclusion and recognition of God has survived on every single piece of currency in the United States for over fifty years, and the historical context is not free from religious aspects. It seems very clear that where religion is concerned, money talks.
Common Sense of Graven Images
It is arguable that due to their historical role, phrases like “In God We Trust,” “So help me God,” and “E Pluribus Unum,” have themselves become isolated religious texts. The phrases are all, to some extent, symbolic of a nation trusting in a Christian God, since the establishment as a nation with religious roots in Christianity can so easily be traced.
While it is unreasonable to conceive of government existing entirely independently of all religious aspects, it is reasonable to conclude that the United States is still a relatively young nation, learning from past decisions, and always striving toward implementing positive changes for the people within its nation’s boundaries. Positive changes take time and patience, but are certainly possible. The U.S. Mint is currently implementing the 50 States Program on Quarters from 1999-2008, and perhaps before another century passes there will be an African-American image on a circulating U.S. coin.
Perhaps a day will emerge when it is not necessary to wonder how Congress is technically breaking two Commandments. There are certainly graven images on coins that have been placed on pedestals of importance, and if the presence of God is without significance or value that should certainly qualify as using the title in vain. A government that bends its owns rules seems highly unlikely to be able to effectively endorse certain more profound religious texts and concepts, especially since a nation has so much difficulty accepting empirical beliefs in context and simply appreciating the wonders of their history.
In comparison to the dictatorship and totalitarian style governments that are exhibited in the roots of other nations, the principles of equality, which are established in democracy, encourage a fairness that is not to be found everywhere on the planet. The pursuit of an “American dream” is nearly a religious context of wish fulfillment, as America has historically been a bold and brazen nation of complex ideas. In America’s historical context, a small elite group of educated individuals determined the guidelines for a growing nation. As society’s Age of Information continues, the small elite group has quickly become a large educated group that is still trying to uniquely embrace the boldness of ideas, while understanding the empirical evidence that the forefathers provided as a foundation to build a great nation.
The key word is foundation. A foundation is merely the base on which a structure rests.
Instead of building a wall of separation between government and religion, historical empiricism has uniquely instilled a plush wall-to-wall carpet of exceptions and contradictions, which uniquely discourages and protects an entire household from cold feet.
Additional Points of Interest
The United States Constitution Online: (Full text articles and discussions about the Constitution, The Declaration of Independence, and other historical documents)
U.S. Bureau of Engraving and Printing:
E Pluribus Unum, Out of One, Many – Origin of the Motto:
The Comprehensive Catalog and Encyclopedia of U.S. Coins, 2nd Edition. Amos Press, Inc. 1998.
The American Patriot’s Handbook. Rand McNally & Company, 1971.
The Holy Bible Revised Standard Version. Harper & Brothers, 1952.