Monday, July 30, 2012

Our National Motto

On this date in 1956, President Eisenhower signed the law finally giving the United States its first official motto, “In God We Trust.” Unofficially, that had been a motto at least since September 1814 when Francis Scott Key composed the poem now known as The Star Spangled Banner, the fourth stanza of which says And this be our motto: “In God is our Trust.” (When we used to sing the National Anthem in Catholic elementary school, it was sometimes suggested that we should consider that 4th verse as the most important one, because of its explicit invocation of God). If we can thank the War of 1812 for that, we can thank the Civil War for putting “In God We Trust” on our coins, where it has since appeared – at first intermittently and later universally. (In the 1977 comedy, Oh God, George Burns told John Denver, “Trust me, like it says on the money.”)

In keeping with its wartime origins, our national motto certainly sounds aspirational, expressing confidence in divine providence. It is also foundational, in that it connects us with the fundamentals of our national founding. Contemporary polemics aside (whihc hav emroe to do with now than with then), the founders were clearly creating a Christian commonwealth – if for no other reason than the obvious one that such was the only kind of society they knew. Of course, church and state were to be separated at the federal level (not necessarily at the state level), but no one seriously anticipated a radical separation of religion and society, such as some advocate so forcefully for now. They could hardly hav eimagines a "naked public square," and would most likely have feared it if they could. The founders were, of course, also highly influenced by classical (pre-Christian) Roman republican theory; but in practice the Christian commonwealth was the only kind of polity they had any actual experience of. Indeed, when the 1st U.S. Minister to Great Britain, John Adams, presented his credentials to King George III in 1785, he mentioned to the king the two countries’ “similar religion.” (Adams famously spoke of “of restoring an entire esteem, confidence, and affection, or, in better words, the old good nature and the old good humor between people, who, tho separated by an ocean, and under different governments, have the same language, a similar religion, and kindred blood.”)

An explicitly anti-Christian commonwealth would, of course, soon be created by the French Revolution, but that tragic development was then still in the future. However influential it would subsequently turn out to be, that historic rupture could hardly have been anticipated. Indeed, at what might be called the “opening act” of the French Revolution, the May 4, 1789, opening of the Estates General at Versailles, all the members of that body – including such soon-to-be radically anti-Church radicals as Robespierre - respectfully walked with lighted candles in the solemn procession, at the rear of which the Archbishop of Paris carried the Most Blessed Sacrament, followed in turn by King Louis XVI wearing the blue sash of the Order of the Holy Spirit.

In his classic study of 19th-century American society, Democracy In America (1835), Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859) noted that, "the religious atmosphere of the country was the first thing that struck me on arrival in the United States." Echoing de Tocqueville’s famous observation, Isaac Hecker later asserted “that the longing after a more spiritual life is one of the principal characteristics of the American people. So far from being a nation absorbed in commerce and in accumulating material wealth, there is no other people who are so easily kindled to a religious enthusiasm … And few will be found who are more ready to make sacrifices for religious convictions.”

As it appears on our coinage and elsewhere, our national motto is a symbolic statement of who and what kind of people we have been. Whether de Tocqueville’s and Hecker’s words can still be said to describe our 21st century America addresses who we are now and what kind of people we may become.

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